David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
It was said of German film director Ernst Lubitsch that his best work was done in ellipses. Sexuality in his films is fun, enchanting and full of joie de vivre. The allure rests in insinuation like a scent in the air. Take the conversation between debonair criminal Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and his mark Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis) in “Trouble In Paradise” (1932), created by Lubitsch and and co-writing pal Samson Raphaelson. Monescu tries to convince and charm the single, rich and beautiful woman to hire him as her personal assistant, so he can later steal her money. Monescu tells Colet that if he were her father, he would tell her never to handle her own business affairs — and that if she did — he’d have to give her a “good spanking”. (At which point he is immediately hired.)
Often the heightened sense of sexuality is based on a man and woman’s mutual love for each others’ vices. There’s something joyous and sensual about taking pleasure in living contrary to social norms, like the charming but thieving Monescu and his “sweet little pickpocket” partner Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins). Other times it was Lubitsch’s skill for the sexual suggestion followed by a well-placed fade-to-black that lent a kind of charm to the wanton elements in his stories. “Design For Living” (1933) is a film about a unique ménage à trois between two struggling artists: a painter, a playwright, and Gilda Farrell (Hopkins), the girl that loves them both. Initially, she tells the pair they must agree to think of her as their art-mother (quasi-manager), sans sex. They agree. Later in the film we find the three relishing their threesome, and Hopkins delivering a line every screenwriter wishes they had written: “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.” Fade to black …
Sadly, “Design For Living” was a critically maligned film in its time. It was said to be a re-hashed Americanized version of famed playwright Noel Coward’s play of the same name. Critics blasted its tameness, how the film tamped down some of the gay subtext, and how writer Ben Hecht and Lubitsch unraveled the ribbon-tongued beauty of Coward’s witty writing. There were some critics that even suggested the screenplay was toned down in an effort to fool the censors. But in truth, this is a Pre-Code film. The code had been installed since 1930, but was largely ignored. It didn’t become the paternalistic instrument we know now, until 1934, a year after “Design For Living” was released.
Certainly the quote about Lubitsch is true, he was a master of the ellipses, the wink and a nod — allowing the audience to fill in the blanks with nary a word. However, beyond the so-called “Lubitsch Touch” is something more adept than simple coyness and light-hearted play. Often viewers make the mistake of placing their anachronistic beliefs about the reserved nature of early twentieth century social standards onto films like “Design For Living”. But Lubitsch was just as ribald as the next man. What sets apart a film like “Design For Living” from its contemporaries is Lubitsch’s keen way of subversion. His films can take social structure and deconstruct its hypocrisy with humor. Or twist the standard definition of a relationship. “Design For Living” finds a truth about sexuality and disguises its awareness in a cinematic virtuosity so marvelous the spell nearly disappears the director’s hand behind its light. That’s Lubitsch. The magician of the romantic screwball comedy, pulling a sleight of hand. Some of his films may appear like the familiarly arcane, fast-talking pics of a long-gone age. But Lubitsch is more devilish smirk than jolly clown. Like Shakespeare, you can re-visit a Lubitsch work and continue to find deeper insights with each viewing. Here are four scenes/details from “Design For Living” that I find masterful, for vastly different reasons. Despite Lubitsch’s and Hecht’s gifts for writing, the scenes I love are largely non-verbal:
The meet-cute reverse reversal
The first scene of the film finds Gilda entering a train car and sitting across from the two men, George Curtis (Gary Cooper) and Thomas Chambers (Fredric March). The men are obviously good friends, both fast asleep and snoring. The scene is nearly soundless, but for the snores and the soft rolling clank of the train sliding across the tracks. Gilda is a sketch artist for an advertising company (which we learn later). She sees the men and begins to sketch their faces in her pad. Eventually, she too falls asleep, placing her legs up between the men so she can stretch out. George smiles like he’s having a good dream. The camera point of view is his. It’s blurry, like a man opening his eyes but still caught halfway between dream and consciousness. He sees his own hand resting gently on a woman’s ankle. He believes he’s still dreaming. He wakes up, as does Thomas. Now the POV shifts to both men eying the girl, just as she did with them a few minutes earlier. Both men smile, and obviously like what they see. Thomas begins to comb his hair. Each cleans himself up for the girl. The two pick up her sketchbook and thumb through her advertising work, eventually turning to the sketch she made of them fast asleep. Now the POV is from the men, looking up from the sketchbook, at Gilda who has been secreting a look at them, while they’re secreting a look at her artwork. It’s a topsy-turvy inversion of sight and traditional sexuality. There’s an equality between all three characters, each enjoying peeking at the other. The scene is marvelous, and evokes a sense of the visual storytelling grandeur of silent film.
Apparently, size does matter
At one point in the picture, Gilda decides to leave both of her men, opting to marry a more secure, traditional man, her boss Max Plunkett. Before the wedding, the two go to pick out a sort of lover’s couch/divan. (Begins at 7:04 mark in the video above.) A salesman shows them through the backdoor of a display window. Again, the scene is virtually silent, but for the quotidian honking of car horns in the city. The camera angle is taken from across the street, with the glass partition between the audience and the characters. You can see they’re talking, but you can’t hear a word they’re saying. There’s some sort of confusion or pre-condition to their purchasing of the couch. Momentarily the audience is left to watch and interpret for themselves what is going on. The salesman takes out a measuring tape. He measures the couch. Then Plunkett takes the tape and measures Gilda’s shoulder width. He stops, then measures himself. He looks into the air, pensively. We realize he’s doing the math in his head. He’s measuring the couch to make sure it’s the right size for two people laying down together on it. It must not have been the desired size, because the couple leave without making a purchase. But what a gorgeous scene. It’s hilarious, and such a clever a way to draw the audience in. How do you know what’s on Max’s mind? He’s just about to get married and can’t wait to get Gilda on the divan. Who needs outlandish, verbal sexual banality, when the plot can be furthered with a couch, a tape measure, and silence?
Are those two tulips, or are you just happy to see me?
There’s a scene on Gilda’ wedding day, where she and Max return to a home full of flowers from well-wishers. Most of them are large bouquets, roses, etc. Gilda looks on the ground and sees a pot with two tulips in it, each with a slight droop in opposite directions. (Um, think Robert Mapplethorpe.) The gift is from her two bed-mates, George and Thomas, the men she really loves. And she tells her husband Max that the flowers are an insult. And that she can envision the pair, off in China somewhere, laughing to themselves. An adept film lover should immediately note the distinct similarity between a drooping tulip and the soft hang of the male phallus. (In this case, make that two.) The image is quite funny. Gilda acts as if the gift is an effrontery, but in truth, she’s more upset that she is unable to forget the lifestyle she prefers with her two best friends. The thematic significance of the scene rests in the fact that Max doesn’t understand what Gilda means by calling the gift mean. Apparently to him, a tulip is just a tulip. The scene shows the unity between the three main characters — that they understand the same language, even non-verbal. Intellectually and socially, they exist in a world that is outside of the norm. They love it. They flourish in it. And Max’s lack of comprehension about the tulips is just one example of the barrier that defines “us” and “them”. The three as an unconventional unit against the rest of the world.
A Room of Reminders
The opening scene of “Design For Living” and the wonderful sequence with the tulips have been written about and talked about before by critics and aficionados more adept than me. But one thing I have yet to read about, and has so far been overlooked, is a minor but wonderful detail Lubitsch presents in the scene where Gilda and Max enter their bedroom after the wedding. After the tulips incident, Gilda sits on the bed, sullen and thinking about her two lovers. If you look at the scene decoration closely, you’ll find reminders of her missing pair. There are two lamps, one on either side of the bed. Their are two designs of vases on the dressing partition, and two small lamps on the dresser as she walks out the room. It’s a clever way of showing how even in the design of the room is a suggestion of what Gilda is missing. I can’t speculate as to whether this set-up was purposeful or not. It doesn’t much matter. It’s a wonderful cinematic accessory for those that love directors and set-designers with a eye for making every detail of a film a part of the story.