not in our stars, but in ourselves
After the bizarre spectacle of the last Pre-Code I watched for this challenge, I decided I needed something a little more naughty and fun. And who does naughty fun better than Ernst Lubitsch? No one, that’s who. Just as an aside, if you’re within striking distance of Cambridge, Mass., Design for Living (1933) is playing tonight at the Brattle Theatre – as part of a fabulous double bill with Trouble in Paradise (1932), which you may recall, I quite like. Anyway, I figured that, if I were to jump back into the sexy side of the Pre-Code pool, I’d do some free publicity work for the Brattle as well. Brattle, if you’re reading this, let’s talk.
Where was I? Right! The film.
Loosely adapted from the Noël Coward play of the same name, it is the delightful story of a ménage-à-trois. Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets Tom Chambers (Frederic March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) on a train to Paris. Tom and George are old friends and roommates in a crummy Parisian garret, eking out just enough of a living as starving artists (playwriting and painting, respectively). Gilda, on the other hand, uses her own artistic talent to draw naughty cartoons for an advertising agency owned by Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton).
By the end of the train ride, Tom and George have each fallen hopelessly in love with Gilda – and she is, as she says, “more than fond” of each of them. When the two men find out that Gilda has been romancing both of them, she gives one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard in a romantic comedy:
A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three or 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. … You see, George, you’re sort of like a ragged straw hat with a very soft lining. A little bit out of shape, very dashing to look at, and very comfortable to wear. And you, Tom, piquant, perched over one eye, and has to be watched on windy days. And both so becoming.
Tom and George want to know which chapeau Gilda will choose – and she says, “Both!” They all decide to adhere to a “gentlemen’s agreement”: they will all live together, happy and friendly and without any sex.
Guess how long that lasts. As Gilda says, “Unfortunately, I am no gentleman!”
Coward and some critics at the time lamented the fact that the film, with a screenplay written by that slouch Ben Hecht*, bore only a slight resemblance to the original theatrical work. However, as the rather aptly named Mordaunt Hall noted that “Mr. Lubitsch, who knows his motion picture as few others do, has in this offering… fashioned a most entertaining and highly sophisticated subject, wherein his own sly humor is constantly in evidence.” In other words: if you want a Coward play, go to the West End. If you want a fabulously sexy, sophisticated film, you cannot do any better than Ernst Lubitsch.
And the players – oh, my. March is a delight, Hopkins is ideal, and Cooper. COOPER. For the eye candy alone, he’s worth the price of admission. Tallulah Bankhead reportedly began working in Hollywood so she could “fuck that divine Gary Cooper!” Who could blame you, Miss Bankhead? While each star is, individually, wonderfully bright – the combination of the three is sublime. The three of them have such chemistry, probably most of all when the three of them are onscreen together rather than when two of them are paired off at a time. They’re having such fun! And it shows!
Obviously, a sexy little ménage-à-trois where everyone is happiest in the threesome is about as Pre-Code as you can get. Not surprisingly, the film was flatly refused the Production Code’s stamp of approval when Paramount tried to re-release it later in the 1930s. Too bad for them. But lucky for us.
*You know. The guy who wrote The Front Page (1931), Scarface (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Nothing Sacred (1938), Gunga Din (1939), His Girl Friday (1940). The guy called the Shakespeare of Hollywood. That guy. Just some nobody, really.