Design for Living
Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins play a trio of Americans in Paris who enter into a very adult “gentleman’s agreement” in this continental pre-Code comedy, freely adapted by Ben Hecht from a play by Noël Coward and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A risqué relationship story and a witty take on creative pursuits, the film concerns a commercial artist (Hopkins) unable—or unwilling—to choose between the equally dashing painter (Cooper) and playwright (March) she meets on a train en route to the City of Light. Design for Living is Lubitsch at his sexiest, an entertainment at once debonair and racy, featuring three stars at the height of their allure.
Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living comes to Criterion Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of about 1.33:1 on this dual-layer disc in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition transfer.
I have to say the digital transfer itself is nice, with grain adequately rendered, sharp contrast, and blacks are fairly deep if a bit washed in places, but the materials used haven’t exactly aged well. The image is never extraordinarily sharp, which looks to be an artifact of the source materials and because of this it never truly pops and always looks fuzzy around the edges. The print also has a few specs, scratches and tram lines, but even if they are noticeable they’re not overly intrusive. But even if some damage mars the image, the digital presentation itself is clean delivering an adequate and generally pleasing look.
The Blu-ray delivers a lossless linear PCM mono track that’s also hampered a bit by the age. There’s some background noise and the audio is flat overall with some edgy music, but dialogue is still easy to hear and clear. P>
Criterion gives us a few supplements starting with ”The Clerk”, a just-over 2-minute clip directed by Lubitsch from the 1932 omnibus film If I Had a Million, which he made between Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. It stars Charles Laughton as a clerk who receives a million dollar cheque and then, well, I guess I won’t spoil it (it’s a pretty amusing punch-line to a long built up sequence.) It’s short and may seem like an odd inclusion, but one of the things the features center around is Lubitsch’s changing style from Trouble in Paradise to Design for Living, so in that context it seems like the perfect addition.
Following this is a selected scene audio commentary by film scholar William Paul. It’s not really a commentary per se but is instead more of a visual essay. Paul focuses on Lubitsch’s style, aka “The Lubitsch Touch,” and looks at both Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living, the sense of irony in both, the sexual innuendo and metaphors, the framing of people and objects, and even the use of exterior windows. He also talks about the pre-code era, compares Design for Living the film to Noël Coward’s play (which it differs greatly from, and the film has received negative reactions from critics because of this,) and gets a little bit into Lubitsch’s early career. Paul packs in a lot, but even at 35-minutes it still manages to drag a little thanks to his flat delivery.
Film scholar/screen writer Joseph McBride talks about the development of the film and the working relationship between Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht, and also gives some details about the production. He covers why the film version differs so much from the play (one reason is that the play was all talk, of course, with characters talking about the past, where Lubitsch obviously wanted it to be more visual and show the story instead of having people tell it) and points out some key differences between the play and film and the one line of dialogue that was retained. He then offers his own thoughts on “The Lubitsch Touch.” In the end it’s much breezier than the commentary and full of some strong insights and tidbits on the film’s production and release. It runs about 22-minutes.
With all the talk found in the previous two features about how much the film and play differ from each other Criterion includes a British television presentation of Coward’s play recorded in 1964, introduced by Coward himself. I’m actually not familiar with the play so I found the feature a useful inclusion. The basic idea between the play and film is pretty much the same, and the storyline rolls along similarly if not entirely the same, but plot points differ (like the ending,) and the general tone between the two also differ. Of course it’s easy to see why Lubitsch would change things around, though some of it may have been that he didn’t like the play (which may explain why none of the dialogue was kept, other than one line.) Coward of course wrote it as a play so it has a stagey feel and Lubitsch would want to have more energy and flare in his production, so he really had no choice but to drastically change it. For me television adaptations of plays never really work, and this one is no different, but it’s still a thoughtful inclusion on Criterion’s part, especially for those (like me) unfamiliar with the original work.
The booklet then comes with an essay by Kim Morgan, who talks about Lubitsch’s career up to this point, the film’s casting (one of the running themes in the features is the against-type casting of Gary Cooper,) the play on which its based, and the critical reception it received, which again wasn’t all that hot because of how much it altered Coward’s play.
And that’s it. It feels a little slight, and I could give or take the visual essay/commentary by Paul, but I enjoyed the rest of it, and was especially pleased Criterion included an adaptation of the actual play for comparison’s sake.
A fine release with a decent transfer that’s unfortunately limited because of the source materials, and with a good amount of thought put into the supplements, even if they all don’t work. It comes with a mild recommendation.