This is the story of three people who love one another very much, as declared by the story’s creator, Noel Coward. The film adaptation of the acclaimed 1932 play, Design for Living, has very little of the original text. And yet screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Ernst Lubitsch succeeded in projecting the sizzling dynamic onto the screen, while keeping it as entrancing as the play. It is the story of a menage-a-trois, as perfectly defined by this frame.
Jumping straight into the frame, we see Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) getting ready to kiss Tom (Frederic March) on the forehead, with George (Gary Cooper) looking on, making sure Tom is getting the same maternal kind of kiss he’s just got a second ago. The rules are in place, sealed with the most desexualised kiss possible, a maternal kiss on the forehead. Yes, the nervous and often angry George always wants to be the first. Yes, he’s been the first to get the kiss on the forehead, but he has to make sure that Tom isn’t getting a better deal than him.
What’s the deal? The deal is: they all move in together and they work towards eliminating any form of ego between the two men. The two men are very good friends, but when they both fell in love with Gilda, they’ve become rivals. Yes, they still love each other very much and would agree to anything not to jeopardise their relationship. Sure, they agree that sex is off the table, if it means having Gilda around, but the distrust with which George looks on indicates that the plan is not as foul proof as originally envisaged. I mean, why wouldn’t they decide to remove sex from the equation, choosing instead to sign on a “gentleman’s agreement” to just be friends? What could possibly go wrong when three highly sexual people decide to eliminate sex from their life?
The frame is perfect in illustrating the dynamic. The film’s director, Ernst Lubitsch is a master at work and knows how to set up the perfect comedic situation, all the while defining the characters with each frame composed. The pose of the three characters is important, including how tall they are. It is no accident that George, the taller of the two, is the one usually needing anger management. He always, often awkwardly takes up most of the space in the room, with his childish tantrums. He always burst out in a fit of rage over the little things, because he’s tall and strong. He wants to be the first or at least no less than Tom, which is why he’s looking on, just to make sure he’s not getting short-changed.
Tom, on the other hand, is not as belligerent and competitive as George, although he can’t be accused of maturity either. He’s just happy not to be left out of this unusual coupling, bowing his head dutifully. This is love three-ways and it is not evenly split, although it aims to be. The first thing these three characters should understand is who needs what. Tom’s needs aren’t George’s, and Gilda’s overlap both of the boys’. Before they find that out, mayhem will ensue. For the time being, they are testing the waters. How can they make a friendship work? “No sex!” This has been the go-to slogan since time immemorial. “We can’t have sex, it will ruin the friendship.” It’s When Harry Met Sally all over again, except that this story is set in a galaxy far far away, aeons before Harry, Sally and their whole relationship was a twinkle in the grandmother’s eye.
This relationship is fresh, albeit old. It’s avant-garde yet stemmed in prejudice. Just before leaning over to give Tom this tender kiss we see here, Gilda mentions that a girl has to refrain from sex before marriage if she wants to be considered nice. Yet, this Gilda doesn’t give a hoot about nice. She loves both these men, and she wants to keep them. Both. And for that to happen she wants to remove the one thing that brought them together from the equation. Okay, maybe she’s not the brightest tool in the box, but she does try. She is passionate for art and all beautiful things in life, which is why she loves both Tom and George in equal measure. George is a talented painter, while Tom is a talented playwright. Gilda has the maturity of understanding that she’s not a talented artist. On the one end of the spectrum, she could be the Pre-Code version of Catherine de Medici (minus the political clout and fortune), a consummate mother of the arts. On the other end of the spectrum, just like in Coward’s play, Gilda comes up short of being the real heroine of the story, having no aspirations for herself, only passion for the two aforementioned boys. Is she the MacGuffin?
Let’s stop on that for a second and attempt to make sense of what we are seeing. A woman and two men. This is 1933. How is this possible? You mean there was a ménage-a-trois story before Jules & Jim? Yes, that is what I mean, and you have Noel Coward to thank for that. Gilda is both the subject and the object of the boys’ affection. She first wants both men, sexually. But at the same time, she may just be a convenient object of both the boys’ affection. The homoerotic subtext has been successfully translated onto the screen, with both Frederic March and Gary Cooper showing great chemistry. They love each other. They did so before Gilda came into the picture. They are joined at the hip, except that in this frame the hip has grown in size, with Gilda sandwiched in between. Women have a way of complicating things, or in this case, of providing an outlet for the sexual feelings of the two men.
This story has been designed by Noel Coward, who couldn’t write a play about gay love in 1930s, at least not outright, instead offering the audience thinly veiled theatrical situations, all written with the love for passion and ridiculous relationships, the reason we still love Noel Coward to this day (for a more modern, yet still hammy approach, see Andrew Scott’s performance in Present Laughter).
Design for Living is perhaps more Pre-Code than most Pre-code films, with a gloriously sexually liberated woman at its helm. She chooses to keep both men she’s in love with, a ménage-a-trois for the ages!