DVD Review: 'Design for Living'

When Ernst Lubitsch's comedy about a Bohemian menage a trois was released in 1933, it took a lot of heat for its lack of fidelity to Noel Coward's original stage play. Screenwriter Ben Hecht boasted that he had retained only one line of dialogue from the play. True or not, what Hecht added was a less frenetic rendition of the style of “The Front Page” and “Twentieth Century,” his collaborations with Charles MacArthur. While the play may be more sophisticated, the movie is many times funnier and more infectious. Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Gary Cooper sparkle as the three lovers/friends; and even their foil (the wonderful Edward Everett Horton in one of his classic fussbudget roles) is given some sympathetic aspects.

The high-definition digital restoration on Criterion's new Blu-ray has excellent grain. The soundtrack isn't notably better than earlier video releases because of the rough quality of the original recording; this was, after all, made during the first five years of the sound era. The extras include commentary on about a half hour of scenes by film professor William Paul. Unfortunately, Paul sounds like he's a student reading a report, and the material, even when valuable, is painfully dry and academic.

Journalist/screenwriter Joseph McBride fares better in a twenty-minute interview. And critic Kim Morgan provides an insightful essay in the printed notes. Also included is “The Clerk” (with Charles Laughton), Lubitsch's two-and-a-half-minute contribution to the 1932 anthology film “If I Had a Million.” By far the most valuable extra is a 1964 TV production of Coward's play (in a somewhat shortened version), as aired on “Play of the Week: A Choice of Coward.” The author himself — puffing away on a cigarette — introduces the presentation.
(Criterion, Blu-ray, 39.95; DVD, 29.95)

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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