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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Where Ads Imply It All


Design For Living Campaign Plays with Censor Fire


I wish I liked this more, but am not alone for disappointment in what should be peak application of the Lubitsch touch. Most any of ones from his Paramount period are better. Design may be proof of how fragile sophisticated comedy can be. A play by Noel Coward was its basis, largely rewritten by Lubitsch and Ben Hecht, a triangle that resolves into a threesome mostly what Design is remembered for. The concept was tough to juggle even given precode laxity, so imagine split-hair negotiation between Paramount and pliable censors to get it passed. Living was best lived by urbanites who knew Coward, had familiarity with the play, and queued up for whatever bore Lubitsch's name. If the 30's had a Woody Allen, it may have been this writer/director. Precode sauce was not so savored in its day as fans savor it now, result Design For Living's spike in buff estimation, but I'd hesitate laying it on a general audience. They may be unwilling to make the necessary allowance.






Lubitsch seems to have been a loss leader for Paramount season offerings. Few of his were profitable. Granted, however, is struggle all Depression era movies had chasing coin, no matter their merits. For a then-public, choice was often food, heating coal, or admission to Bijous. Many were shocked at prices hung at Broadway’s Criterion for the Premiere ("Only Theatre in the World Showing This Picture This Year,” clever, as initial showtime was 8:45 PM on Dec.31,1933). For the reserved-seat, two-a-day engagement, admissions ran high as $1.65, and not lower than fifty-five cents, astronomical when laid against dimes, or at most quarters, taken in across the wider US. Meaningful too was Ernst Lubitsch himself marching forward and prominently in opening day ads with his stars Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March. This was status few directors enjoyed, and certainly none outside the tallest money class. Lubitsch, then, was for prestige, and Paramount's outreach to an affluent and highbrow audience.






Reviews about the town were expectedly positive. Critics admired effort toward sophistication whatever the mixed result. Lubitsch, Noel Coward, and Ben Hecht were referred to as "The Authors," as though Design were being staged, not screened, on Broadway. It had been done legit, thus the pre-sell for movies, but was Paramount trying here to blur the difference? West Coast radio was heavily employed on Design's behalf, home listening still in ascendance as tool for pic publicity. Stills were rife of Lubitsch posing on the set with players. He would continue to be as important as these toward advertising. Of the latter, Paramount took care against too elevated an approach. “We realize that some towns won't go for "dressed up" pictures,” so Para assured that ads of the cast in street clothes would be available. However, “where photos of the stars in full dress have been used, they are so informally cock-eyed ... that they just ooze the informality of three very informal people.”






Pics of the Criterion's front display were handed down to subsequent daters with assurance that Design For Living had been a smash there, but close inspect revealed it took but "mild profit" (Variety) from that theatre's three-and-a-half week run. Showmen were hep to hyper-fueled reportage from first-run fronts, and took little of it seriously. Real selling revolved around Design's naughty theme: "It Will Give Women New Ideas On Love." Was Paramount challenging a well-entrenched status-quo? Design For Living went into general release for early 1934, with strict Code enforcement just around a corner (summer of that year). Did aroused censorship use Design ads to argue their case for a clampdown? Far more people saw the ads than saw the movie, including kids and other impressionables. "The daring, distracting play of a woman who loved two men ... completely ... simultaneously!" was copy printed above March, Hopkins, and Cooper in a tight huddle, sky the limit as to interpretation of those words. Was Miriam indeed taking on both guys at once? If so, Design For Living really would be something new in movies. Never mind Mae West. Paramount was asking for trouble with this campaign. Soon enough, they’d get it.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin K. said...

By and large, I thought this was a good picture, until the final third or so (the wedding), when it just dragged. Sophisticated overall, but I don't have a desire to see it again.

4:24 PM  
Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

Apparently only one line of the original play was used in the film version.

1:15 AM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

I have to agree with you on this point, Design for Living has never landed for me at all. I think the fatal flaw in it is the way it stands on its head to tell you no sexual intercourse is going on. You ask yourself what the hell is the point? It's a co-ed dormitory. This is in contrast with the rest of Lubitsch, where hanky panky is all but explicit, though not illustrated. I presume they had to emphasize the chastity of the affair because if they didn't the subject of who was doing what to who would come up. As for it being from a Noel Coward play, I understand Coward hated it so much that he vowed never to sell a play to Hollywood again.

2:16 AM  

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