Few films have had as much nonsense written about them as Ernst Lubitsch's "Design For Living." From the moment it was released, it was criticized for rewriting Noel Coward's then-daring play (Ben Hecht, the screenwriter, said: "There's only one line of Coward's left in the picture--see if you can find it!"); for casting Americans in parts that had originally been played by Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne; for toning down the gay subtexts of Coward's play. All that is, of course, completely irrelevant; the question is not whether the play is faithful to the source material, but whether it's good. And it is, it is.
There are flaws in the film. This was one of the first times Lubitsch had made a movie with little or no music on the soundtrack; previously, in his musicals and his sublime "Trouble In Paradise," he had used background music to cover up potential dead spots and carry the film along. Here there is none of that, with the result that some of the early scenes seem oddly paced. But the wit of the script (written by Hecht but, as always with Lubitsch, carefully supervised and contributed to by the director himself) and the appeal of the performers (more about them later) pull the film through the occasional rough spots, and the second half of the movie is just about perfect.
Another idiotic thing that is often said about "Design For Living" is that Lubitsch and Hecht rewrote Coward due to fear of the censors. In fact, the censors must have had a heart attack when they saw "Design," for this is one of the most sexually frank of the pre-Code Hollywood movies; premarital sex, cohabitation, adultery and frigidity are all clearly portrayed-- but, as always with Lubitsch, they are implied rather than shown. Lubitsch's trademark door and blackout gags are here, and they are hilarious; again, it's not Noel Coward--it's Lubitsch, the cinema's greatest comic filmmaker at the peak of his powers.
But there's something else here that isn't found in most Lubitsch films, and it comes from Ben Hecht, whose cynical, fast-talking, very American style of writing gives the characters a flavor quite unlike the more Continental wit of Lubitsch's usual heroes. (This is also one of the few Lubitsch films where the lead characters are American rather than European.) Critics have sometimes complained that Hecht's somewhat inelegant style was unworthy of either Coward or Lubitsch. Again, I disagree; the moments of Hechtian farce (like the hilarious party scene) are beautifully handled by Lubitsch and turn the film into a forerunner of screwball comedy, the place where Continental charm and hard-driving Americanism meet.
Now to the actors. The "British is Better" attitude of many critics made it inevitable that Lubitsch's American cast would be pilloried. Again, this is not Noel Coward and a Noel Coward style of acting wouldn't work in this context. All the leading players are actually quite wonderful: Miriam Hopkins, one of Lubitsch's favorite actresses, has the best role and gives a
marvelously energetic performance as the flighty, pretentious free spirit who tries to substitute art for sex; Gary Cooper is at the height of his youthful charm, with a surprisingly light comic touch and great teamwork with Fredric March. March, who can often be heavy-handed in film comedy, is here charming and funny; it's a tribute to Lubitsch that he got such a genial performance out of him. And, of course, there's Edward Everett Horton, one of Hollywood's finest character actors in one of his finest roles.
If you know and love the Noel Coward play, don't expect this movie to be a faithful adaptation. Think of it as an original work of comedic art that happens to utilize some of the story elements of Coward's play. It's not Noel Coward; it's a splendid romantic farce that, like all great comedies, has serious themes underneath the fun: Sexual freedom, male vs. female roles in society, art, love, friendship. So see it (if you can; it's not on video, alas). It's not Noel Coward, it's Ernst Lubitsch, and despite the occasional flaws, it's Lubitsch at his best.