Design for Living – The Criterion Collection #592 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

December 6, 2011 by  

Ernst Lubitsch’s boldest film!  “Design for Living” is a very loosely-based  film adaptation of Noel Coward’s original play, “Design for Living” is a rare, radical, audacious yet well-performed film.  And not only does this Blu-ray release look and sounds better than the original Universal DVD release, but  also included is a 1964 Noel Coward teleplay version.  Overall, a fantastic Criterion Collection release!

Image courtesy of © 1933 Paramount Productions, Inc. 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: Design for Living – The Criterion Collection #592


DURATION: 91 Minutes

DVD INFORMATION: Black and White, Monaural, 1:33:1 Aspect Ratio

COMPANY: Universal/The Criterion Collection

RELEASE DATE: December 6, 2011

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Based on the play by Noel Coward

Produced by Ernst Lubitsch

Cinematography by Victor Milner


Fredric March as Thomas B. “Tom” Chambers

Gary Cooper as George Curtis

Miriam Hopkins as Gilda Farrell

Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett

Franklin Pangborn as Mr. Douglas, Theatrica Producer

Isabel Jewell as Plunkett’s Stenographer

Jane Darwell as Curtis’ Housekeeper

Wyndham Standing as Max’s Butler

Gary Cooper, Fredric March, and Miriam Hopkins play a trio of Americans in Paris who enter into a very adult “gentleman’s agree­ment” in this continental pre-Code comedy, freely adapted by Ben Hecht from a play by Noël Coward and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A risqué relationship story and a witty take on creative pursuits, the film concerns a commercial artist (Hopkins) unable—or unwilling—to choose between the equally dashing painter (Cooper) and playwright (March) she meets on a train en route to the City of Light. Design for Living is Lubitsch at his sexiest, an entertainment at once debonair and racy, featuring three stars at the height of their allure.

Bold, stylish and a pre-code non-musical film by Ernst Lubitsch, “Design for Living” receives new life with the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of a film which showcases radicalism but a wonderful performance by its talent Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins.

It was 1932 when filmmaker Ernst Lubitch’s  contract with Paramount had run out.  Having completed the musical film “One Hour with You” with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (featured in Criterion’s “Eclipse Series #8: Lubitsch Musicals”), Lubitsch was a hot filmmaker which United Artists and Columbia were going after.

But for Lubitsch, he wanted to try something different.  He wanted to direct for the stage in New York City but instead re-signed with Paramount for a three-film contract and what is most significant about this contract is the two films that he developed that were non-musical romantic comedies.  One was his masterpiece “Trouble in Paradise”(as part of the Criterion Collection #170) and his other was “Design for Living” (1933).

“Design for Living” is loosely based on Noel Coward’s play and features a screenplay and earlier work by legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht (“Scarface”, “Notorious”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Spellbound”, “His Girl Friday”).

While the film has been released on DVD as part of Universal’s “The Gary Cooper Collection”, this is the first time the film has received a Blu-ray release and unlike the DVD version which had three movies on each disc and was compressed, this is the best version of the film released on video to date.

“Design for Living” was known back then as Lubitch’s first film dealing with contemporary morals.  A film literally about a menage a trois, three people involved in a relationship.  Needless to say, this was shot prior to Hollywood’s Hays Code which would ban indecency in films.  But a year later, after the Production Code Administration initiated the code, the film would be banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency and was denied a PCA for re-release.

“Design for Living” would feature three people who would meet on a train in Paris and become more than friends.

Thomas B. “Tom” Chambers (played by Fredric March, “A Star is Born”, “The Best Years of Our Lives”), a screenwriter who is best friends with painter George Curtis (played Gary Cooper, “Meet John Doe”, “High Noon”, “Mr. Deed Goes to Town”, “Sergeant York”).

One day while sleeping on a train, a young woman named Gilda Farrell (played by Miriam Hopkins, “Trouble in Paradise”, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “The Heiress”), an artist for an American advertising company owned by Max Plunkett (played by Edward Everett Horton, “Top hat”, “Shall We Dance”, “Arsenic and Old Lace”) sits on the seat across them and immediately, she becomes smitten with both men and both men become smitten with her.  Eventually, Tom would have a sexual relationship with Gilda, as George has with her as well.

One day, Max Plunkett visits both men individually and tells each to end their relationship with Gilda.  He tells each of them, “Immorality may be fun, but it’s not fun enough to take the place of 100 percent virtue and three square meals a day.”

When both men find out from each other that Plunkett has talked to them, each men decide that they shouldn’t let a woman ruin their friendship.   But when Gilda comes to visit the men, both know they are very much in love with her, as she is with them.

Gilda tells them, “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 is able to decide which he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct-guesswork-if she wants to be considered nice.”

But as the two are jealous of each other in competing for her affection, they come to a “gentleman’s agreement” in which she would move-in with both men and would critique their work but as long as she lives there, they would have to concentrate on work and not have sex.

But what happens when Tom goes to London to supervise a production of one of his plays and Gilda is left alone with George?

Needless to say, it will test their “Gentleman’s agreement” and in the end, which man will end up with Gilda?


“Design for Living” is presented in 1:33:1 black and white.   According to the Criterion Collection, this new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 1K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS and Pixel Farm’s PFClean, while Image System’s DVNR was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction.  Image Mill’s steady was also used to reduce film weave.

For those who owned the original Universal “The Gary Cooper Collection” DVD set, one of the things that I disliked about the Universal release and a practice used on a few of their older films was putting these movies (in this case, three of them) on a DVD.   In fact, I knew before watching the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release that the picture quality would definitely be much better than this DVD release by a large margin and I was right.

The original Universal DVD looked blurry, a lot of white specks, blemishes, occasional flickering and while there was grain, this Blu-ray release not only looks beautiful, the film damage seen on the DVD version is literally non-existent when watching it on Blu-ray.  The clarity and detail faces are noticeable, while the DVD is noticeable for its blurriness.  Even objects and structures look blurry and lack detail.  The Blu-ray release showcases the detail.  Grays and whites and overall contrast is beautiful.  Blacks levels are very nice!

Hands down, this is the best looking version of the film-to-date.  Granted, I wouldn’t throw away your copy of the “The Gary Cooper Collection” as there are five movies worth watching in that set.  But for “Design for Living”, the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release is the best looking version of the film to date.


“Design for Living” is presented in monaural.    According to the Criterion Collection, the original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a fine-grain soundtrack print.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

Dialogue is crisp and clear, and I detected no hiss or crackle.  Nothing that distracted me while viewing.

Subtitles are presented in English SDH.


“Design for Living – The Criterion Collection #592” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • The Clerk – (2:21) A very short segment of the 1932 omnibus “If I Had a Million” in which Ernst Lubitsch directed one of the scenes featuring Charles Laughton.
  • Selected-Scene Commentary – (36:31) Film professor William Paul, author of “Ernst Lubtisch’s American Comedy” talks about the production history of the film and his analysis of various scenes.
  • Joseph McBride: The Screenplay(22:08)  An interview with film scholar and screenwriter Joseph McBride who talks about the differences between Noel Coward’s play and Ben Hecht’s script (and his approach to adaptation) and also what made the film so special.
  • Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward – (1:13:31) A 1964 British ITV television production of the original “Design For Living” featuring an introduction by original creator Noel Coward.


“Design for Living – The Criterion Collection #592” comes with an 24-page booklet featuring image stills from the film and the essay “It Takes Three” by Kim Morgan.

Whenever I watch an Ernst Lubitsch film, I pretty much know that I’m going to have a great time.

He has a way of approaching a storyline and directing and utilizing his talent with enormous efficacy, it’s no surprise of why he is considered such a legendary filmmaker.   But while he is remembered for films such as “Ninotchka”, “Shop Around the Corner”, “Trouble in Paradise”, “To Be or Not to Be” to name a few, “Design for Living” is an interesting and unique Lubitsch film because it takes on social morals and in this case, not love by two people but love by three people.

You are not going to find many films within the last 90-years that features a menage a trois as part of a romantic comedy storyline.  Even in today’s society where you may see the banal gigolo with his women, in this case, its two men who love the same woman and woman who loves both men.

How do you approach a story with that kind of relationship.  For one, that was the challenge for filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch and earlier in his career, Ben Hecht. In Hecht’s adaptation, both men would not follow Noel Coward’s film verbally, but still maintain the adventure of the three individuals.  While, the film adaptation would feature Max Plunkett as forgettable man.

But its the performances that manage to take this film and literally make it entertaining.  We know that Tom is the more decent man of the three, Tom is more of the man who can’t wait to have sex with Gilda and Gilda is a woman who is very intelligent, carefree and she manages to hold these two men on a string, making them part of her Bohemian lifestyle and acknowledging that they have their own ethics, their own lifestyle.

There really is no true or threatening drama, no risky high point that challenges the three on their morals.  No government, not society telling them what they are doing is indecent.  Only Max Plunkett, Gilda’s boss and the film’s clown.

So, the film is audacious, its absurd but it’s witty and mischievous to the point that that makes you intrigued that a Hollywood film like “Design for Living” was ever created.  And yet, it possible was a film that was ahead of its time, or maybe easily to take in today than it was then.  While the film did do well in the box office as many came to see a Noel Coward film, like the critics, reviews were mixed because this film was nothing like Noel Coward’s play.  But at the same time, it probably was best that Hecht did stray from the original as the fear was that people watching film would not understand Noel Coward dialogue.

But I felt it was a smart move on Lubitsch’s part to have Hecht craft the screenplay and distance themselves from Noel Coward’s work.  From various books that I have read, this was a film he agonized about for quite a while before taking it on.  And the only reason why he took it on was because he didn’t have to make the film adaptation exact to the original play.  So, all that does remain of Noel Coward’s play is just the title and the theme.

As for the Blu-ray release, once again, this is the definitive version of the film-to-date and picture and audio quality far surpasses the original DVD version from Universal’s “The Gary Cooper Collection”.  In fact, because of the quality that Criterion Collection has put into this release, I can only hope that Universal considers the Criterion Collection on taking on some of their classic hits, because this film on Blu-ray looks absolutely fantastic!  And in Criterion Collection fashion, you also get the benefit of special features as well (which Universal was never known for in their older classic DVD releases).

But the winner for me was the inclusion of the Ben Hecht featurette but most importantly, the 1964 play of “Design for Living” based on Noel Coward’s play.  We not only get an introduction by Coward but with all the talk of the differences between Lubitsch and Hecht’s version of “Design for Living” compared to the original play, now viewers can watch the play and see how things differed greatly.  So, I felt that Criterion Collection including this as part of the special features was fantastic!  Similar to what the Criterion Collection did with “12 Angry Men” release by including the teleplay, I was quite thrilled to find out that the teleplay was included.

Overall, “Design for a Living” is one of the bolder Ernst Lubitsch films out there.  In fact, with the release of “Design for a Living”, one can only hope that “Trouble in Paradise” will also be considered for a Blu-ray release in the near future.  But I’m very pleased that the Criterion Collection has released a Lubitsch title on Blu-ray and in keeping with the Criterion Collection’s goal of focusing on important classic and contemporary films, “Design for Living” is a style of film with subject manner that you’re not going to see in an American romantic comedy ever again.

“Design for Living” is definitely recommended!

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