Today is Fredric March's birthday. To celebrate, I'm reposting an excerpt from my 2011 Criterion essay on one of his best pictures, Ernst Lubitsch's sublime, soulful and very, very sexy Pre-Code masterpiece, Design For Living.
Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) is what sexy should be—delightful, romantic, agonizing ecstasy. And it’s not just sexy but also revolutionary, daring, sweet, sour, cynical, carefree, poignant, and so far ahead of its time that one could cite it as not only a pre-Code masterpiece but also a prefeminist testimonial. A uniquely Lubitschian picture in its elegance and graceful wisdom, with the gruffly intelligent, street-smart Hollywood writer and soon-to-be legend Ben Hecht collaborating, this take on the trials, titillations, and torments of a kind of relationship usually seen in true adult films, a ménage à trois (and one involving the gorgeous trio of Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins), is unlike any other movie of its era.
What film, even before that killjoy schoolmarm Joseph Breen brought his Squaresville strictness to the Production Code in 1934, has ever presented the potentially salacious scenario of three-way love in such a wistfully complicated way? This is neither a bunch of hot-to-trot cheap thrills nor a moralizing sermon on the dangers of sexual transgression—it’s a soulful look at human desire.
Design for Living recognized that desire is not divided unequally between the sexes. It can, in fact, be genderless. A place where gentlemen can be women. And women can be wolves. And men can be romantic Red Riding Hoods, wandering through a quixotic forest only to stumble across a beautiful blonde with shimmering white teeth, delicate little feet, and a big, beguiling wit. “The better to share you with,” she will eventually declare, before not eating them whole but tasting their specific Coop and March delicacies with equal ardency. Here, however, is where the movie reveals clearly that men are indeed men. Male horniness is not to be trifled with. Best friends or no best friends, how can they resist? This is some woman. They surrender, dear.
And that surrender happens from the get-go, perfectly, in a favorite movie location for scintillating erotic interplay: a train. With a wonderfully wordless introduction, the movie—adapted quite loosely from Noël Coward’s notorious play—begins like a declaration: This is a movie. To those expecting two lumps of Coward in their Lubitsch, well, sorry; you’re getting a pinch (and thrown over the shoulder for good luck). This is not a play. This is a motion picture. Faces are the thing, faces writ large, gorgeous faces as directed by the sparklingly urbane Lubitsch.
Please read the rest of my essay at Criterion. And, don't be a gentleman, if you've not seen it, watch the movie. March? Cooper? Hopkins? Lubitsch? Hecht? You can't go wrong. Well, you, or rather they (the characters) can go wrong, but in all the right, sexy, elegant ways... And that's not exactly wrong. Viva unconventional love!