Design for Living (1933)

Three corners in a love triangle

Design for Living (1933)

"You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct – guesswork – if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it's quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out." – Gilda Farrell in Design for Living

1934. That's when those Production Code stuffed-shirts cinched the chastity belt on Hollywood pictures, which means Design for Living's ménage à trois slid in just under the wire. (It was banned from re-release a year later.) Ernst Lubitsch, working with star screenwriter Ben Hecht, applied his patented Lubitsch Touch to this adaptation of a Noel Coward play, shifting Coward's Continental urbanity into a rowdier frolic featuring three toothsome American leads. Lubitsch's favorite leading lady, Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise's feisty pickpocket), is Gilda, a commercial artist who falls in with two best friends, Gary Cooper's bull-in-a-china-shop painter George and Fredric March's suave playwright Tom. Gilda – emphatically not a nice girl – can't decide between hats, Tom and George are both wild about her, and the best friends are stuck on each other, too: The geometry would make your head hurt if their collective chemistry weren't so enchanting. Anticipating an unhappy end, the three shake on a "gentleman's agreement" – no more sex – but Gilda can't stick to the rules: "I'm no gentleman," she says sorrowfully. The film works every angle, with Gilda pairing off with George, then Tom, then another guy altogether – a total zero named Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). But it's no use: Three is ever their magic number.


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