It is very tempting, and would not be inaccurate, to say that Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living, which will be released to DVD tomorrow by Criterion, is what the word "effervescent" means. To the film's credit, however, that is only part of the story.
Any time a pre-Code movie is set free once again among the public, those who care tend to get pretty excited by the prospect of seeing classic Hollywood engaging in matters a bit racier than would soon be the norm. I'm not judging, because I get excited, too -- there's an inherent fascination to it all, and anyway I will never forget the first time I saw Tarzan and His Mate. But what's great about it is less the raciness than the bluntness. It's nice to see adult filmmakers making films in which they don't have to pretend to be talking about something they're not, and hide what they're actually talking about. And Design for Living is sort of blunt. It's the story ("freely" adapted, according to the Criterion case, from a Noel Coward play by Ben Hecht. How freely can be judged by you, as Criterion has included another adaptation of the play from 1964) of best friends and starvign artists George Curtis (Gary Cooper), a painter, and Tom Chambers (Frederic March), a playwright, and their mutual love for advertising artist Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins). This all happens in Paris, and what's surprising about the whole set-up is that Gilda can't choose between the two men, and would rather not, as a result, when you get right down to it.
So that's where a lot of the effervescence comes from, the free-spiritedness of it all. But Design for Living goes beyond that by making the love between these three feel like it matters. The initial plan, devised by Gilda, is to exclude sex entirely, but when Tom goes to London to stage his new play (up to that point he was a writer of "unproduced plays, very good, of that kind"), Gilda and George can't help themselves. They try to let Tom down easy, but when he confronts Gilda later, he says that he can excuse, if not forgive, George because George betrayed him for Gilda, something Tom is able to understand. But Gilda betrayed Tom for George -- "An incredible choice," he says, and there's no little pain, and even a touch of malice to that line.
Things flip around quite a bit as the film goes along, as you'd expect, but the actual pain inherent in their situation never faulters. If George and Tom and Gilda are able to come through it all in the end, it's because the love is genuine, all around. And for my money, while Hopkins and Cooper are both great here, and Cooper in particular was a bit of a revelation as I'd never seen him so energized, it's Frederic March who walks away with the film. He has that "incredible choice" line, and also the terrible change from happiness, as he dictates a letter to George and Gilda regarding the success of his play, to the desperate wilting that follows his receiving of the news that Gilda and George have, for lack of a better term, become exclusive.
Also worth mentioning is Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett, a very business-minded fellow whose love for Gilda precedes that of both George and Tom, though in Max's sad case the love is unrequited. Horton is very funny, and so damn natural and smooth with every pompous and self-regarding syllable he's given to utter. Plunkett functions as sort of the villain of the piece, if villain there be, though, actually, there is no villain. Plunkett is an obstacle, but he's less likable than the rest of the main characters only because he's less fun. He's not made to suffer for this, however, and is instead shown than his particular path to happiness lies elsewhere. But his grabbing for Gilda does lead to what must be the most remarkable shot in all of Design for Living, and the one that most betrays the film's pre-Code roots: George and Tom waiting for Gilda in the bedroom she has come to share with Max, both men silently looking down at the couples' bed. Each feels anguish, that's clear, knowing what must have happened in that bed, but both have a tiny bit of light in their eyes, too, based both on their memories of their own time with Gilda, and of the future they plan on bringing about.