My adoration for this unique director is recent but sincere. It started back in June, when I watched a great deal of classics, joyfully alternating between Cooper and Stewart. That’s how The Shop Around the Corner caught my eye, with its charming love story and witty lines, leaving me to wonder who this Lubitsch fellow was. Then came Bluebeard’s Eight Wife, with the dashing Gary Cooper and the lovely Claudette Colbert in all their glory – a funny romantic comedy where the early genius of Billy Wilder already comes through. The famous Ninotchka didn’t win me over quite as easily – that stern Garbo was more than a little off-putting – but somewhere in its second half she found a way into my heart.
These are all great comedies and amongst the most beloved from the director, but they were still within the time’s standards and constricted by decency codes. I am still to see a true pre-code from Lubitsch but, just this afternoon, I got a taste of it.
Design for Living is a loose adaptation of the play by Noël Coward, starring the entrancing Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and, once again and for everyone’s delight, Gary Cooper. It has an compelling plot: two men fall in love with the same woman, and she too feels attracted to them. But instead of choosing just one, she decides she wants them both.
They make a gentleman’s agreement, according to which the three would live together, but sex was out of the question. She would be a muse and critic to each of the men’s work – one was a playwright, the other a painter – but nothing more. However, nature takes its course, and things get a little more complicated than planned.
When I watch a classic movie, I tend to unconsciously adopt the values of the time, so I was a little shocked at this ménage à trois (I actually gasped at her proposal). Predictably, the movie was banned the year after its release – which makes it all the more appealing. I find this forbidden essence one the most alluring aspects of Pre-Code. Another would be the powerful women, who were in complete control of their male counterparts: men were their pets, not the other way around.
And even though Design for Living is not essentially Pre-Code, in more than a couple of scenes Cooper and March look like poor fools at the hands of Hopkins. And that, I tell you, is a blast to watch. It’s only been five movies, but this feels like a promising start, and has me believing there’s still plenty of Lubitsch to unveil and enjoy.
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