Design For Living (1933)
This was on a list of poly movies, and the Netflix description reads:
Packing double éntendres and boudoir innuendos galore, director Ernst Lubitsch's racy comedy Design for Living stars Gary Cooper, Frederic March and Miriam Hopkins as an inseparable threesome living in a Parisian garret and immersed in a ménage à trois.Made in the '30s, I sat down to watch it thoroughly prepared to hate it.
I loved it.
This was a quirky little film that, for once, didn't feature people doing foolhardy indefensible things. An ex-partner of mine decided about 4 movies ago that all poly movies should come with a lable that says "Warning! Irrational People Inside" because they all seem to feature people doing the most godawful, inane things to each other.
But not this one.
And it was made in 1933!
Y'know, the fundies want to re-write history and tell us that "traditional marriage" is the nuclear family and has been the standard family model since the Flintstones, and that teen pregnancy and sex outside of marriage never happened except in a few scattered scandals that we try to ignore.
That simply isn't true. Popular media and entertainment created in previous eras still exist and reflect the morality of their society. Look up "pre-code Hollywood" or "the Hayes Code" on Wikipedia. Basically, in the 1930s, Hollywood started enforcing censorship guidelines due to immense pressure from the Catholic Church, but for the few years prior to that yet after the introduction of sound in motion pictures, movies included all sorts of things like sexual innuendo, profanity, illegal drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, abortion, homosexuality, and very strong female characters and female-centric subjects. I could devote an entire episode just to the details of this Code and how it changed the face of American cinema alone, so I do recommend looking it up. There's a good documentary on the MPAA's movie rating system too, which highlights the influence the Catholic Church has had on the Motion Picture Industry from the beginning and continues to today. Point is, if you look at entertainment and art underneath the censors, you find the topics that were important and of interest to the society of the time and sex is ALWAYS of interest when the Church isn't busy trying to cover it up. Non-traditional lifestyles existed and were popular enough in the past for art and entertainment to be made featuring them.
In Design For Living, a woman named Gilda (soft "g", like "Jilda") meets Tom and George on a train in France. The two gentlemen immediately fall in lust for her, and conversation on the train engages them intellectually. They become fast friends. We skip ahead to the two men living together in a dismal little attic room (a garret) in a slum in Paris, struggling to make a living in their respective artistic professions (Tom is a playwright and George is a painter). Gilda draws commercial art and has a boss, Max, who has the hots for her but for whom she does not reciprocate.
George and Tom both begin romancing Gilda secretly, aware that Gilda is friends with the other, but unaware that she is amenable to being romanced by the other. Until one day, the two men figure it out. At first, they fight and try to break up their friendship by moving out and claiming to never want to speak to each other. But then they realize that they have been friends for many years and they shouldn't let a woman come between what is so special to them. They agree to both break things off with Gilda and remain friends. But then Gilda comes over to confess. In a comically dramatic fashion, she explains how she loves them both equally and cannot choose between them. She proposes that they enter into a threesome where she will live with them, be their housemate, their friend, their critic, their mother, and help them both in their careers, but there will be absolutely no sex. After some debate, they all agree.
At this point in the movie, I could easily consider this to be poly-ish and add it to the list right here. But wait! There's more! Unfortunately, in order to explain what else there could possibly be to make this more poly, I'm going to give away spoilers by telling the story of the entire plot including the ending, because that's important to why I think it's a poly movie. If you don't want spoilers, maybe because you want to watch the movie and enjoy being surprised by the plot twists, then you can just stop listening now and take my word for it that the rest of the movie, including the conflicts that put pressure on being in a triad, is still poly-ish. You can always come back and listen to the rest after you see the movie. Otherwise, keep listening while I defend this movie even with the pressures put on the three-way relationship.
So Gilda moves in and things go pretty much according to plan. Gilda succeeds in getting one of Tom's plays into the right hands and he gets offered a position in London. She insists that he follow his dreams and Gilda and George will come to London in time for Opening Night.
Unfortunately, the very first night Tom is gone, the sexual tension between Gilda and George rises without the inhibiting influence of Tom, and they have sex. Tom becomes a rising superstar in London with money and fame and begins dictating a letter to Gilda and George about how much he misses them both and how he can't wait until they are reunited in 6 weeks for the opening. In the middle of his dictation, a letter arrives for him. It's not clear which one wrote the letter, or if they both did, but Gilda and George admit their "infidelity" to Tom, who immediately changes his letter to a coldly formal letter of congratulations with wishes for their happiness together. So, it sounds like it's not terribly poly if they broke up. Or, one could argue that it actually sounds a lot like one of the "wrong ways" to do poly where the "third" isn't allowed to develop a relationship with one that differs from the relationship with the other. But, I digress.
10 months later, Tom is a famously wealthy and loved playwright. While attending a performance of his play, he sees Gilda's former boss, Max, in the audience. Tom manages to bump into him during intermission and tries to solicit information about Gilda and George without asking outright. He learns that they are doing well and that George's career as a painter has taken off too. Tom leaves that night for France.
He manages to track down their current residence and finds Gilda alone, as George has gone to another country on a painting commission. Gilda is thrilled to see Tom again, and, as before, without the inhibiting influence of the third part of their agreement, the sexual tension rises too high to be contained, and Gilda has sex with Tom.
George comes home unexpectedly the next morning. At first, he's thrilled to see Tom- they did, after all, have a decade-long friendship before Gilda ever came onto the scene. Then he figures out what all the stilting responses and awkward glances are all about and guesses that they had an affair. George throws Gilda out. Tom tries to make amends while Gilda goes to pack, but George doesn't want to hear any of it. Finally, George goes to check on Gilda and discovers a note for each of them. She writes to tell them that she is leaving them both. While she was with George, she was haunted by Tom and she fears that if she were to go with Tom, she'll be haunted by George. So her solution is to leave them both.
George and Tom reconcile after reading these notes and go back to being friends, without Gilda. Once again, it sounds like it's not very poly, since the two men keep fighting over who gets to be romantically involved with the woman. But her love for them both is very much poly, and there's still more to come.
Some time later, Gilda marries her old boss, Max. On her wedding day, however, we see her very agitated. She very clearly does not love Max, but this is an era where a woman's status and future are determined by her husband. Her marriage progresses for a few months and she gets progressively unhappy.
Finally, George and Tom decide that they are both unhappy without her and they propose to go and get her together. They crash a party at Max's house where Gilda has had enough. She rejoices in seeing them both and in seeing that they are both still friends. She manages to orchestrate her leaving Max in such a way that his business actually improves due to sympathy from his clients that the unfaithful wife has ditched him. So Max gets what he wants, which is more money, she gets both George and Tom, George and Tom get her, and all the friendships remain intact.
In the final scene, the three of them are in a cab and she gives both of them a long, passionate kiss while the other looks on. Then she reintroduces the "gentleman's agreement" they had before, which is a live-in triad with no sex. Both men agree, but all three of them exchange looks that say "yeah, right, whatever!"
The overall tone of the movie seemed to suggest that these three people were meant to be together, that life was miserable for each of them when any one of the triad was missing, and that "happily ever after" does not mean making sacrifices for propriety but flinging yourself into life and grabbing whatever it is you need to be happy, even if it's sharing a woman or having two men.
I had to keep reminding myself that it was made in 1933 to get past the whole "no sex" rule, and the glances at the end allow me the freedom to interpret them as saying that the "no sex" rule will not last. It makes me happy to think that they eventually break the rule again only this time they learn from the past and do not break up over it. I doubt that was the original intention, but it's just open-ended enough that I can think that if I want to. Then again, given the innuendo popular at the time, perhaps it was the original intention? The original screenwriters have not commented on that, and the play that the movie was based on ends similarly open-ended but the characters are laughing and the playwright says in response to the ambiguity of the final scene that he thinks of the characters as "laughing at themselves". So, who knows?
This was an exceedingly progressive movie for our times, and it was made 75 years ago! I thought the movie was cute, lighthearted, and fun, and, adjusting for the era with regards to sexual mores, quite reasonable in its attitudes. The individuals didn't do inordinately foolish things. I felt their various reactions to each situation was quite reasonable and fairly quickly worked through to an acceptable conclusion given the circumstances they were in. Each character felt very strongly about their relationship to the other and sought to find compromises that they all could live with together, rather than ending any one particular relationship. Whenever any one particular relationship did end, it was generally considered to be one of the problems that needed to be solved, not the solution to the existing problem of loving multiple people. There were periods of time where the three of them were not all together, but the lesson learned was that they were all happier when they were all together than apart.
I thought this was a great film and I highly recommend it!
P.S. - you may only find this movie on a DVD bundled with another Gary Cooper movie called Peter Ibbetson, with a red box titled The Gary Cooper Collection or something similar. That's how I got it from Netflix.
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