After commercial artist Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) meets aspiring playwright Thomas Chambers (Fredric March) and artist George Curtis (Gary Cooper) on a train, the three of them hit it off with each other very well. Thomas and George are best friends and live together, working on their respective art forms. Unbeknownst to each other, they each start having an affair with Gilda. When they realize what’s been going on, Gilda announces that she can’t decide between the two men, so she’d rather serve as a platonic muse to both of them. However, nobody follows through with the “platonic” part of their arrangement.
With Gilda’s help, Tom’s play is produced and becomes a big hit. But with so much of Tom’s attentions on his play, George and Gilda have time to pursue their affair, which inspires him to become a successful artist. It isn’t long before Tom and George realize that Gilda has continued having affairs with both of them, there is some initial anger, but before anything else can happen, Gilda leaves both of them to marry her dull boss Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton).
Not long after her marriage to Max, Tom and George pay a visit to Gilda and find her deeply bored with her new role in life. Being Max’s wife is positively mind-numbing to her and she misses the days of having affairs with both George and Tom.
Ernst Lubitsch was responsible for directing many great pre-codes, but Design for Living is the most risqué of them all. It’s a perfectly witty, stylish, sophisticated cinematic concoction that certainly would have left conservative types clutching their pearls. And who can blame Gilda for being forced to choose between men played by Gary Cooper and Fredric March? I love this movie.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moment
Basically, the entire movie is one big pre-code moment.
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
When a movie’s entire plot is hinges around ideas that would have been very strictly forbidden just a year later, that automatically earns it a spot pretty high on any list of essential pre-codes. In a lot of other pre-codes, objectionable scenes might have been removed as deemed necessary by local censors. That couldn’t happen with Design for Living since its shock factor is built into the story. A movie ending with three people deciding a three-way relationship is right for them, especially when one of them is openly rejecting a traditional marriage in favor of this three-way relationship, would still be pretty eyebrow raising by today’s standards.