Though this film version of the literate, witty play by Noel Coward is tame
by comparison, the "Lubitsch Touch" is very much in evidence. March, an
apprentice playwright, and Cooper, a young painter, meet commercial artist Hopkins on a
Paris-bound train, immediately falling in love with her. When she can't decide which one
she loves, she creates a "design for living," one where a menage a trois
situation takes place. It's all platonic, but March and Cooper begin to show jealousies
that lead to nasty confrontations. Hopkins finally gets fed up and marries stuffed shirt
Horton, going to NYC with him to settle down. But she is bored to tears within a year and
welcomes her two friends who show up at one of Horton's insufferable parties. They
literally destroy the place and Hopkins, desperate to rejoin the living, goes back to
Paris with March and Cooper on either arm. The Hays Office, which had been established to
clean up Hollywood morals, considered the Coward play too risque. Director Lubitsch and
scriptwriter Hecht were told to tone down the sexual innuendoes and keep the trio's
relationship obscure. As a result the film loses much, but the performances of the
principals are faultless and make the effort better than average. This had been an Alfred
Lunt and Lynn Fontaine vehicle on the stage, where Coward himself played the other man.
Hecht, the enfant terrible of Hollywood, first bristled when he heard the Hays Office
decree. Then he shrugged and completely re-wrote Coward's so-called "amoral"
dialog, retaining only one line from the original work: "For the good of our immortal
souls!" Always the literary elf, Hecht thought it funny to use some of Coward's lines
from other plays, "The Vortex" and "Hay Fever," which he worked into
the script. Though Coward would appear in the lead of the Hecht-MacArthur film THE
SCOUNDREL, Hecht never liked Coward, thought his humor too foreign to the earthy likes of
Americans, and that the British playwright was too precious. Some of Hecht's lines
tip-toed up to the Hays Office fences and bumped against them: "I haven't got a clean
shirt to my name," says Cooper. Replies March: "A clean shirt? What's up? A
romance?" Cooper snickers: "I'm not talking pyjamas. Just a clean shirt."
Lubitsch worked with Hecht on the script and approved of almost every line, much to the
frustration of Hollywood's most successful screenwriter. Hecht later whimsically wrote
that "in writing with Mr. Lubitsch on DESIGN FOR LIVING, I was confused by what
seemed to be at first glance a sort of manic-depressive psychosis on its upswing. Mr.
Lubitsch, when he creates those delicate touches for which he is notorious, has a way of
flinging himself around the room like an old-fashioned fancy roller skater. He pirouettes,
leaps, claps his ankles together in mid air, screams at the top of his voice, and bursts
into tears if contradicted." At one point when Hecht was reading some of his lines to
the director, Lubitsch stopped him, asking: "You think that's good?" "Yes,
I do," replied Hecht. Said Lubitsch with disgust: "That's the kind of suggestion
people send me in the mail."