There’s something in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for Living” (1933) that I haven’t seen in other films of the same era:  female sexual desire.  Mix that into a ménage à trois between Miriam Hopkins and two men — Frederic March and Gary Cooper — and you have a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen on screen until now.

Very loosely based on a Noël Coward play (which was itself very loosely based on the personal lives of stage actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who were two of Coward’s best friends), and completely rewritten by Ben Hecht and reimagined by Lubitsch, the film centers on Tommy, a playwright, and George, a painter, who both fall for sparky young advertising artist Gilda.  Within days she finds she’s fallen, too; except she’s fallen in love with both of them.  “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men,” she explains:

You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.”

For about five minutes this poses a serious problem for the men, who seem to face a crisis in their friendship.  But they’ve missed the solution Gilda is proposing:  That the three of them experiment with a purely platonic arrangement of living together in the same, shabby Montmartre apartment, with Gilda serving as their “mother of the arts” to spark and hone their creative genius.  To make this threesome work, they make what they call a “gentleman’s agreement”:  “No sex.”  And indeed, she’s responsible for their subsequent success.  First, she barnstorms a producer’s apartment to drop a copy of Tommy’s new play on his desk.  “It’s a woman’s play!” she pronounces triumphantly, and everyone in the room sits up and pays attention.  (I was initially going to dedicate this post to that line alone.)  Soon Tommy is whisked off to London to see it through rehearsals and opening night.

With him away, Gilda and George can no longer repress their passion for one another.  She’s always had a tendency to be slightly louche, and to throw herself onto beds in a serio-comic pose of female disconcertion.  Realizing that sex with Tommy is now an inevitability, Gilda throws herself onto the bed and pronounces, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement — but unfortunately, I am no gentleman!”  (Fade.)

Tommy is crushed when he hears of this development, when he comes back to Paris and finds George temporarily out of town, he sadly reminds her of their previously happy life by pointing to his old typewriter they’ve kept, even though it’s in sorry shape:

Tommy, accusing:  “You didn’t keep it oiled.”
Gilda:  “I did for a while.”
Tommy:  “The keys are rusty.  The shift is broken.”  Gilda slides the carriage, causing the typewriter to “ding.”  They look at each other with surprise.
Gilda:  “But it still rings!”  He walks over to be close to her.
Gilda, repeating:  “It still rings.”
Tommy, meaningfully:  “Does it?”

So he and Gilda take a turn indulging in a night of passion — which they regret as soon as George returns.  Horrified by the prospect of losing them and destroying the men’s friendship, she runs off and marries Edward Everett Horton, a tedious advertising suit.  But Tommy and George reconcile and determine to find her again.

In other pre-Code films, women either deploy sex as a means of gaining power (Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face,” for example, which I described briefly earlier this month) or to signal their looseness (Jean Harlow in virtually anything before 1933).  Seeing Hopkins genuinely drawn to both men — and unable to control her sexual desire for them — makes one realize what movies might have been able to say about female sexuality if it hadn’t been for the Code.  This film genuinely wants its audiences to imagine a situation in which one woman might have two live-in lovers — a situation that doesn’t end in tears and melodrama.  Lubitsch always keeps the tone light, but the subject matter is fairly radical.

Even more radical were the queer overtones in Tommy and George’s relationship, which Coward’s play explored in detail.  But just because they’re subtle in the film doesn’t mean they’ve been erased.  From the outset, we know that this is a genuine triangle; these men love each other just as much as they’re attracted to Gilda, and to ruin their love would be just as tragic as one man losing the woman.  It wouldn’t be long before the Code would truly stub out such images.

“Design for Living” is ultimately one of those near-miss kinds of films — its dialogue doesn’t quite sparkle, and its actors never quite stop being talky and self-conscious.  Gary Cooper was 31 and at the height of his beauty, but not yet at the height of the comic skills that would appear so gracefully in “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” (at 31, Cooper had already appeared — incredibly — in 61 films).  Compared with her male co-stars, the relative newcomer Hopkins appears the most suited for the film’s scope, and she looks increasingly terrific in every glamorous outfit.  The “Lubitsch touch” that made other films radiant — “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise” — doesn’t quite jell here.

But to see a comedy from 1933 that takes for granted that a woman has independent sexual desire, and that this will not lead her to abjection, regret, or early death:  how rare it is.  As Gilda herself puts it to her husband on their wedding night, as he pronounces that he has “forgiven” her for her earlier sexual peccadillos, “Forgiven me?!  Forgiven me for what?”  Thank you.

Oooh! check out this nice tumblr with images/ scenes from Design for Living.