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.
Further reading: Design for Living: It takes three by Kim Morgan / The Golden Girl: A Tribute to Miriam Hopkins
This post is my contribution to the Miriam Hopkins blogathon hosted by the fabulous Silver Screenings and Font & Frock. Read all the wonderful entries here.
16 thoughts on “There never was a woman like (Miriam Hopkins’) Gilda…”
Fabulous! I laughed out loud at your question, “when do you know that it’s the right two?”
You make a good point about getting away with things if you use charm and humour. It’s funny you should mention that – when I first heard of this film, I was one of those who was surprised that people spoke favourably about it, and not other “questionable” women/movies from the same period.
I’ve not seen this film (Crazy – I know!!), but I know I’ll treasure the wit when I do see it. And that Travis Banton wardrobe!
Thanks for joining the Miriam party!
Thanks for having me!
I think you’ll like it – Hopkins, Cooper and March are a wonderful trio. Re: charm – it’s a tried-and-tested formula, I’m sure it’s how I get away with most things
Marvelous work, as usual! Yes, I’ll take her wardrobe and Gary Cooper on my arm any day 😉
Thanks Cindy! Is it too much to ask for her looks and figure too?!
I remember enjoying this film a lot, both for Hopkins and for the rare chance to see two leading men like Cooper and March working together – together with the Lubitsch touch and Hecht’s witty dialogue, it’s a pretty irresistible combination all round! Lovely piece here.
Thank you – glad you enjoyed reading. Of the male duo, I do prefer March as there’s something a little stiff in Cooper’s comedy. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie though!
Excellent article, Miss V! I have enjoyed your insights about the film’s style and reception by a 1930s audience. Although I think Miriam worked well as part of a team in Trouble in Paradise, I’ve always thought Design for Living was her showcase with the guys supporting her (must admit I prefer Freddie March over Gary Cooper by a hair).
Thank you 🙂 And I couldn’t agree more RE March and Cooper. The former just seems better-suited to this kind of comedy, Cooper doesn’t quite seem ‘at home’ in his role.
This is a FANTASTIC review– I love your humorous and insightful points, and the images you chose are amazing! Surely Miriam looks desirable enough for more than two fellas… ! Excellent contribution to Miriam’s bash… Cheers Joey
Thanks & glad you enjoyed reading. I agree that it’s implausible she’s only deciding between two. Surely they’d be queuing round the proverbial block 😉
And I’d be in that line too! LOL
1930s movies are rare on Brazilian TV, but luckily I found a place to watch Design for Living, which I intend to do the next few weeks.
Without a doubt it sounds pre-Code risky, and Gilda may be a fabulous character… Yesterday I was saying life would be much simpler if a woman could date two guys at the same time! hahaha
Thanks for your kind comment,
Design For Living is a great film. What a sophisticated romantic comedy should be, not like mot of the stuff we have in newer films. I’m not knocking new films, there are some very good one, but most are aimed at the lowest level of humor. Hopkins is a seductive woman and is perfect in this role. I agree with you on the ending. Nice!
Never before had I heard or read about this movie. After reading your article, I certainly need to see it. You know? I have never paid too much attention to this lady (Ms. Hopkins). All I knew about her is that Ms. Bette Davis called her once “a total bitch”. However, maybe I should give Ms. Hopkins a chance.
Thank you very much for writing so well about this picture, and for awaking the curiosity about it inside me.
What a great writeup! I like this movie a lot, and you express its delicate blend of wit and melodrama very well.
And I agree with you, Miriam’s wardrobe is absolutely stunning.