If you're a true classic movie lover, there's been two essential DVD buys in the last few months: The Criterion Eclipse series "Lubitsch Musicals" and the "Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 2" set from TCM. As essential as these are, the best Lubitsch and pre-code films lay hidden elsewhere, sometimes buried in boxed sets with post-code balderdash. One such gem is Lubitsch's DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933)
Created in a more enlightened age, DESIGN comes from a Noel Coward play adapted by Ben Hecht--two of the theater's most enlightened wits. Miriam Hopkins stars as a commercial artist in Paris who moves in with artistic buddies Gary Cooper and Frederic March (they have superb comedic rapport). Good as they are, it's Hopkins show all the way; she sparkles with sex, intellect and assurance. Even in today's cinema it's difficult to find a female character as assured as her Gilda. She becomes a muse to both men, yet that doesn't mean cleaning up after them or taking their shit. She never flinches or backs down as she ruthlessly criticizes their work, cracking open their egos and helping them towards successes beyond their wildest dreams. Unfortunately neither man can avoid being jealous of the other, and they drive her back to the chaste but devoted arms of her effeminate boss, the ubiquitous Edward Everett Horton.
Decades of being buried in the studio vaults (thanks to its "dangerously progressive" attitudes towards sexual relationships outside wedlock) made the collective cinema consciousness pass this gem by. It was never released on VHS and finally arrived--with no fanfare--buried inside the GARY COOPER SIGNATURE COLLECTION--a thin DVD boxed set that includes the far less essential (and post-code) PETER IBBETSON, THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN and two desert fighting movies, BEAU GESTE and LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER.
Considering the price, this set is worth getting just for DESIGN FOR LIVING alone. It's a shame this film isn't included in some kind of contextual setting, like the Forbidden Hollywood or Lubitsch Musicals set. or with bleeding edged photo-bedabbled Criterion essay collections. Instead it's shuffled in amidst drowsy adventure dramas and a very weird romantic "dream-fable" (Ibbetson) all of them saddled with all the hetero-patriarchal sexual conformity being "post-code" implies.
Other pre-code gems planted in boxed sets alongside post-code material: KISS AND MAKE UP (Cary Grant Franchise collection); MOROCCO, DEVIL IS A WOMAN, and BLONDE VENUS (Marlene Dietrich Glamor Collection), NIGHT AFTER NIGHT and I'M NO ANGEL (Mae West Glamor Collection); and the expanded (with all lurid scenes between March and Miriam Hopkins restored) version of DR. JEKYLL 'n' MR. HYDE (b-side of the tamer 1941 version with Ingrid Bergman and Spencer Tracy).
This article continues in its weird way over on Bright Lights. There's some interesting stuff I link to there, re: Miriam Hopkins and her "bad" Hollywood decision making, and how her independence led to her refusing roles that went to Carole Lombard instead. Whether she was truly a bitch as Bette Davis said, I admire Hopkins' chutzpah in "daring" to turn down roles. I've seen how "enlightened" society still gets mad at truly free women. Hopkins couldn't have been all bad; she backed out of Lubitsch's TO BE OR NOT TO BE as a favor to Lombard, whom Hopkins had beaten out for many earlier roles (this according to Carole & Co.) Lubitsch was obviously a treat to work with, so that's proof, to my mind, she was generous. Can you imagine Bette Davis ever doing that? Picture Carole Lombard as Eve Harrington to Miriam Hopkins' Margot Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE, and Hopkins deliberately dropping out of her leading play to let understudy Lombard have her moment. With Davis, that would never happen without skullduggery!