Inspired by Noel Coward’s classic stage comedy of the same name, Design For Living is one of Ernst Lubitsch’s most charming – albeit overlooked – films. Rewritten for the screen by Ben Hecht, it’s a charming ‘rom-com’ with a distinctive Pre-Code twist: a three-way relationship that uses sex as social currency. At the centre of this ménage-a-trois is Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) who never quite oversteps tradition but certainly knocks at its door. Even to contemporary audiences, she’s a relatable, complex character who refuses to accept the role thrust upon her without society. In fact, I’d go as far to say she’s one of my favourite screen characters – not too clichéd; independent enough to be believable.
So, without any further ado, let me count the ways in which I adore Gilda:
That perfect indecision
A gal always has to choose. Never mind that life is too complicated to make a decision – society demands it, particularly when it comes to relationships. Wisdom still holds that two is better than three – but when do you know that it’s the right two? In an attempt to navigate this rocky road, Gilda makes like a man and strings two suitors (Fredric March and Gary Cooper) along until she decides which one is right for her. This all makes for some risqué Pre-Code moments, including a wonderful scene when Gilda reclines on a bed in front of Tom and George asking: “Couldn’t we all be a little more nonchalant?”.
Those side-stepped morals
The reason why Gilda gets away with her outrageous behaviour? Because it’s all done with disarming, witty charm that’s completely forgivable. Because desire is dressed up (or down) as a circumstantial dilemma rather than a moral one. But let’s not forget: it’s testament to Hopkins’ talent that she was able to navigate the fine line between melodrama, comedy and retain her particular brand of femininity. She’s a real woman, with flaws and foibles who views men as equals rather than superiors. Hopkins is probably the only actress who could’ve got away with it too – consider the furore that followed Barbara Stanwyck’s Baby Face ‘tart’ and Mae West’s liberated Lady Lou in She Done Him Wrong. Those two films were released about six months before Design For Living; the more positive reaction couldn’t just have been due to the comic dialogue.
The voice of a generation?
“A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.” With that one line, Gilda expressed sentiments that women of the era must’ve been reining in for years. Why not try men on like shoes and see which one fits? The ‘nice girl’ purity that characterised popular perception of femininity in the 1930s isn’t a concern to Gilda – although she’s not trying to have her cake and eat it. She just wants to make sure she makes the choice that’s right for her. But despite this progressive stance, director Lubitsch and screenwriter Hecht knew not to take it too far. For all of Gilda’s scandal she’s not trying to be a man, rather navigate a course that better suits a ‘modern’ woman. In fact, the trio’s friendship is one of the most charming aspects of the movie.
A penchant for drama
Despite the so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’, Gilda further complicates an already complex situation by running off with another man. But not just any man, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton) a completely unsuitable character who is dull, dreary, lacklustre… To add insult to injury, she marries him! Of course, George and Tom save the day (this is where the feminist standard slips a little) and the three-way relationship is rekindled, although how it pans out is anyone’s guess. This is pretty progressive, even by Pre-Code standards, and the ambiguity of the ‘happy ever after’ ending is one of the film’s greatest charms.
Some temper tantrums
Despite all the comedy, the best scene by far is the one where Hopkins looses her temper with Horton. “I forgive you”, he says, benevolently. “Are you forgiving me again?” she later retorts, before adding, “I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!”
THAT Travis Banton wardrobe
Not to be totally materialistic, but I’m pretty sure I need every one of Gilda’s outfits. The terms ‘wardrobe’ and ‘Gilda’ usually evoke associations of Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale satin numbers (designed by Jean Louis) but there’s something eminently wearable and down-to-earth in Hopkins’ chic day suits and wide collars. Who could be anything but innocent in a structured jacket that fastens with oversize bow buttons? Who could practice deception in a dress with a large white Peter Pan collar and cuffs? Of course, it’s Banton so the gowns are pretty spectacular too, from the floor-length sequin cocktail dress to the elegant chiffon affair that’s finished with small buttons and puff sleeves and a point collar.