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Design for Living (February 25, 2010)

Design for Living was a Noel Coward play written in 1932 and premiered on Broadway on January 24, 1933. It ran for five months, to exceptionally good houses. Coward was already a famous playwright and had had several hits. The play was written to star Coward and his friends, Albert Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were probably the most well-known couple to co-star on the Broadway stage of that time. It didn’t premiere in London until 1939. It was thought that the ménage à trois Coward depicted wouldn’t make it past the West End censors. The success of the play inspired a popular song, “Life Begins at 8:40”:

Night and day, ma cherie,
Me for you and you and you for me.
We’re living in the smart upper sets.
Let other lovers sing their duets.
Duets are made for the bourgeoisie – oh
But only God can make a trio.

Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay and, as the New York Times review of the film noted, “all that remains of Mr. Coward’s manuscript are the title and the theme.” Hecht and Coward, both wits of the period, were each quoted commenting on this, Hecht saying that the only line he kept from the play was “For the good of our immortal souls,” and Coward saying, “I’m told that there are three of my original lines left in the film – such original ones as ‘Pass the mustard’.”

The film opened on December 28, 1933. In 1940 Joseph Breen, head of the Hays Office, which was in charge of the Motion Picture Production Code, remembered “this particular opus, Design for Living, was one of the pictures which contributed much to the nation-wide public protest against motion pictures, which flared up early in 1934, and which resulted in the formation of the Legion of Decency” which was an organization sponsored by the Catholic hierarchy to identify and boycott movies that it felt depicted low morals. Breen called it “a story of gross sexual irregularity, that is treated for comedy, and which has no ‘compensating moral values’ of any kind.” The film was denied a certificate by the Hays Office for re-release in 1934.

The Times critic said that Ernst Lubitsch, the director, had “fashioned a most entertaining and highly sophisticated subject, wherein his own sly humor is constantly in evidence.” He said Miriam Hopkins “plays her part resourcefully and imbues it with the much desired levity.” He called Fredric March “excellent”, especially when he “makes the most of the author in a theatre listening to laughter at his own lines.” He said Gary Cooper “lends vigor and naturalness” to his role, and called Edward Everett Horton “splendid.”

I hope you enjoy watching Design for Living with me tonight.