The Sex (now that I have your attention) Blogathon: Design for Living (1933)

Sexy? Design for Living? You bet.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A cast featuring Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Fredric March (a trio of lookers if ever there was one). Screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on a Noel Coward play. How could it be anything BUT sexy?

This pre-Code confectionery focuses on the lives of three expatriates living in Paris – commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Hopkins), playwright Thomas B. Chambers (March), and painter George Curtis (Cooper) – who form an unusual relationship after they meet cute aboard a train. He loves her, she loves he – it’s all very mixed up and ménage-a-trois-like, and it’s complicated further by the presence of Gilda’s self-righteous boss-slash-wannabe boyfriend, Max Plunkett (the always entertaining Edward Everett Horton who, incidentally, delivers my favorite line of the film: “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.”). To resolve their growing inter-relationship dilemma, Gilda, Tom and George vow to work together, sex-free, but ultimately, complications ensue, and the trio finds that this promise is not so easy to maintain.

Sex is all over this movie. Like flies on egg salad.

Sex is all over this movie. Like flies on egg salad.

The theme of sex is present throughout the film, hanging over the proceedings like so much filmy gauze. Sometimes its manifestation is subtle, and at other times it’s a little more anvilicious, if you know what I mean. And this being pre-Code, those anvilicious scenes could be quite jaw-dropping.

My first inkling that these characters had something going on beyond your garden-variety, Americans-together-abroad association was the scene where Thomas admits to Max Plunkett that he’s madly in love with Gilda and not three seconds later, we see her smooching with George in his apartment. Another, more obvious, clue comes during a conversation between Gilda and Plunkett, as she describes what she experienced during her lip-lock session with George: “Have you ever felt your brain catch fire, and a curious, dreadful thing go right through your body – down, down to your very toes, and leave you with your ears ringing?” And then she tells him how a recent assignation with Tom made her feel: “Just the opposite. It started in my toes and came up, up, up, very slowly until my brain caught fire. But the ringing in my ears was the same.” And as Gilda is offering up this rather esoteric, but somehow quite illustrative, account, she’s running her hands slowly over her body for emphasis – just in case we didn’t get the point.

Sexy from the start.

Sexy from the start.

Ultimately, despite Gilda’s efforts to ensure the contrary, George and Tom eventually find out that they’ve both been keeping time with the lovely and irresistible Gilda. They’re initially mutually incensed and heartily offended, but they soon conclude that their long-standing friendship isn’t worth breaking up over “some girl we met on a train.” Their resolute plan to keep Gilda – er, “Miss Farrell” – at a distance is short-lived, though; when she pays a visit to both men at their flat, they’re completely mesmerized (as are we) when Gilda compares them to hats and insists that she can’t choose between them: “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,” she purrs. “And you, Tom – chic. Piquant. Perched over one eye. And has to be watched on windy days. And both so becoming.” By the time she’s finished offering up this imagery, the boys are feeling sorry for HER! But it’s Gilda who finally convinces Tom and George that the three of them can effectively work together: “No sex,” she says, kissing them chastely on their foreheads. “It’s a gentleman’s agreement.”

It's a Gentleman's Agreement.

It’s a Gentleman’s Agreement.

Of course, this covenant, which was so earnestly agreed upon, doesn’t hold up. When Tom’s play is performed on Broadway, his extended absence leaves the door open for the reunion of George and Gilda. (“It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement,” Gilda tells George with a sigh of resignation, “but, unfortunately, I am no gentleman.”) And later, when George is off working in Nice, and Tom pays a visit, the old sparks between he and Gilda are rekindled in a scene that’s practically exploding with innuendo – Tom realizes that Gilda still has his old typewriter, but he’s disappointed to learn that she has failed to keep it oiled, resulting in a broken shift and rusty keys. Gilda slides the carriage back and forth, causing the machine to emit its familiar dinging sound. “But it still rings,” she says meaningfully. When George returns, Gilda finds herself facing her old dilemma and she flees from them both, jumping instead into the matrimonial pool with her old boss, Max Plunkett. But that little act doesn’t serve to put an end to the film’s sexy threesome – shortly after George and Tom pop back into Gilda’s life in the midst of a swanky dinner party at the Plunkett home, Gilda leaves her husband and the trio ride off in the back of a taxicab into the sunset, with plans to return together to Paris. And after she shares a passionate kiss with both of the men, Gilda offers: “There’s one thing that has to be understood – it’s a Gentleman’s Agreement.”

If you’re never seen Design for Living, I don’t know what you are doing with your life. And if – like me – it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, treat yourself and give it a rewatch!

You only owe it to yourself.


This post is part of the Sex (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, hosted by Steve over at Movie Movie Blog Blog. Click the banner to the right and check out the great posts that are part of this fun and frisky event!

~ by shadowsandsatin on June 19, 2015.

8 Responses to “The Sex (now that I have your attention) Blogathon: Design for Living (1933)”

  1. […] Shadows and Satin – Design for Living (1933) […]

  2. You know, I’ve seen GENTLEMEN’S AGREEMENT (1947), but somehow I don’t think it was quite the same as this! Very entertaining blog about a movie that is now high on my must-see list! (And Messrs. Lubitsch and Cooper now make their second appearance in my blogathon!)

  3. A great read — thank you !!!

  4. […] Lubitsch again rears his stylish head, as Shadows and Satin lets us in on Gary Cooper and a couple of friends having a menage-a-twow in Design for […]

  5. That Lubitsch…isn’t he saucy and wonderful. Ha! This is thirty years before “Jules and Jim”… and with a Happy Ending to boot. I say, why make a woman choose? Why can’t she have both? “…I am no gentleman.” Ha! Indeed. Nicely written.

  6. […] If you’re curious about films like “The Long Hot Summer” “She Done Him Wrong” “Design for Living” “She Done Him Wrong” “Born To Kill” “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and many more […]

  7. […] to check it out, though – it’s airing on January 12th. Other standouts are Mandalay (1934) and Design for Living […]

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