Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, January 26, 2012

No Sex! It's a Gentleman's Agreement...

Design for Living (1933) centers around a "gentleman's agreement" that there will be no sex between sketch artist Miriam Hopkins and best friends Frederic March and Gary Cooper. There's a very good reason for this: they like each other so much, they don't want to fuck it up. American ex-pats in 1930s Paris, they meet on a train, so neither March nor Cooper can claim to have seen her first and have any 'finder's rights' and Hopkins refuses to choose one over the other. She is 'very fond' of both, so the agreement is she will be a 'mother of the arts' and spur their work--March's plays and Cooper's paintings--to success, which she does, and friction will be sidestepped by their gentleman's agreement, its offshoot artistic sublimation in part responsible for their triumphs. But once March is off to London to shepherd his play's West End opening, Hopkins takes Cooper into her boudoir to console him over their mutual loss, and beds him for she is "no gentleman."

Meanwhile her boss, advertising mogul Everett Edward Horton, patiently waits his chance to woo Hopkins. He hasn't even 'gotten to first base' with her and as is the case so often with such lame duck lovers who are never quite all the way spurned or accepted, feels it's his duty to attempt to shoo the other boys away but of course he's little more than a fly at a picnic thinking it's the other way around. That is until he eventually 'wins' by default, even though he's too beholden to Eaglebauer to give her a, well, it's a semi-long story.

But what price no sex with guys as gorgeous as Cooper and March? And in this film they are tall, well-dressed and full of callow insecurity coupled with 'they don't know how hot they are" extra hotness -- and the result my favorite performance from either of them.  I don't think I've ever seen March more relaxed, less like his usual coiled spring thespian self, or Cooper more beautiful, almost feminine with his eye liner and creaseless face. Look at his visage in the top picture; not a furrow on either's brow. Or look into Cooper's haunting eyes, has he ever seemed more alive or intelligent or sensual? Together they display the kind of rapport you seldom see in men outside of a rock band, the military, or Howard Hawks movies (Hawks collaborator Ben Hecht wrote the script loosely patterned off of Noel Coward, for whom the boy-boy romance was surely more complicated).

Paris, 1933 (March - right)
Now that Criterion's awesome blu-ray is out we can forget about trying to find it elsewhere and savor the lush image and Kim Morgan's awesome essay, "It Takes Three." which is included in the liner notes:
What’s so touching about this threesome is how much they genuinely like each other. When you see them giggling on a bed (feet off the floor), they could just as easily be braiding each other’s hair or challenging one another to a wrestling match. Sex gets in the way, of course, but equal intelligence is an asset here. And since Gilda is essentially a good woman and not a mere indecisive tease, she can’t tear these two best friends apart. Rather than torture them with bedroom flip-flops, she sacrifices her own happiness for . . . Edward Everett Horton.
Morgan's tight journalistic prose and willingness to gaze without flinching into the murky abyss of feminine desire is an inspiration for my own writing and I appreciate her approach to the film is a lot more about the desire while mine is about the 'agreement.'  I found out early on that if you love beautiful, intelligent women, but don't sleep with them, or even hit on them, ever, just love them and let them inspire you, then your art will bump up several notches and you will keep the beautiful inspirational women as friends for life (as lovers you'd lose them after a few months or years and never be inspired by them again). If Deneuve's traumatized beauty had a friend like that in Repulsion, she may have been able to just cook the rabbit and watch some TV. God forbid you hit on her and get rejected! you'll never write again, but if you can do the trickster thing and resist temptation you just might have a shot at getting actually good at your craft, and not getting pregnant or slashed to bloody ribbons in the process.

One of my own personal gentleman's agreement-style bonds is captured in the picture below, circa 1991. It wasn't quite the gentleman's agreement of Cooper and March and Hopkins because she was his girlfriend but the effect was the same as in Design for Living, a three way love affair for alcoholic ages: he and I were in a band together and housemates; her and I played a lot of gin and drank a lot of gin. The three of us went everywhere together. We were like Design for Living times Performance! In some ways, my relationship with the both of them was 'purer' then theirs as a couple. They fought and sulked and needled and I rose above it all like a third wheel spinning in the sky; my own girlfriend snug and quiet in her genie bottle of Old Grandad (green label).

N. Myrtle Beach, 1991 (me - left)
Losing her in the mid-90s to a conventionally successful and 'grounded' E.E. Horton / Ralph Bellamy type helped make me the critic of marriage I am today. No offense to him personally, he's a right enough chap, but he's not... us. I've lost so many great friends to marriage, it's like small pox, or Logan's Run (below). Right around the age of 30 they float up to the altar at the 'carousel' and are zapped off to the suburbs. Suddenly they can't stay out late because they need to catch the last train home and or relieve the babysitter. I'm happy for them if they're following their bliss, but if they're following the herd I say halt, herd!

"I do."
But! I am for group marriages. Maybe a three-way marriage could have allowed sex to flourish within the tri-bond of of Design for Living.  I wished I could have married all my friends in a big collective group back then, bound to each other body and soul (well, soul anyway). Instead we live with the daily injustice that we may be best buds with someone for 20 years and then can't visit them in the hospital or share their inheritance, while some chick they drunkenly married a week ago in Vegas suddenly owns half of everything we watched them earn and shuts us out of the visiting room on detox day. I know at least two beautiful, smart girls who never see or hear from their dad anymore because of his jealous second wife. And that's your 'noble institution' in action? No wonder wits like Hecht and Coward and Lubitsch were so suspicious of it. Much better to cherish those friends you love via the gentleman's agreement, so that the mystery and sublimation need never cease its sparkle.

And of course, breaking that agreement then becomes doubly exciting.

PS -- if you're happily married and getting pissed off reading this, forgive me, I'm really only talking about the media's sickly  unconscious Horton-esque sanctification of the suburban status quo (i.e. new baby sitcoms like Up All Night) and overall avidya-style short-sightedness compared to the witty out-of-the-box genius of Design for Living. I do know many fine marriages where I revere and love both members and even their children or lack thereof. It's only because no one else is even trying that I would widen the shrinking aperture of what the media shows as success and happiness in this most dying and overpopulated of all possible worlds.


See also other films that recognize the gentleman's agreement: My Best Friend's Wedding, and The Good Thief or what about the electric synergy of Fred and Carrie on Portlandia?


  1. Erich, fantastic article! I love this piece so much. (Plus, Frederic March...woof whistles.) As for the marriage, though I am happily married, I actually agree with you on many points. Too many look at marriage as this thing that you do. It's a total "thing" and not what it should be, which is a partnership between equals. Plus, your friends are lucky to know a guy who is smart and knowledgable about quality and interesting cinema.

  2. Mondoheather, You're the best. My friends ARE lucky, even if I never see them. But a lot of that is my own choice, they DO invite me to Westchester once in awhile, if you know what I mean, but I hate sharing the spotlight with a lot of kids. That you can be married and still dig this article shows your marriage is good and true. Blessings be upon it!


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