When Noel Coward, whose 1933 hit Broadway play this was based on, say this film, he famously quipped, “I’m told that there are three of my original lines left in the film – such original ones as ‘Pass the mustard’.'” Coward was prone to descriptive exaggeration in his, but in this case he was erring on the side of moderation. Scriptwriter Ben Hecht kept only one line of Coward’s original dialogue, but the line was a toast made by Gary Cooper’s character, “here’s to our immortal souls.” The situation is pure Coward: three Americans, two male, one female, and struggling in their respective professions of illustrator, painter and playwright when they meet in Paris and bond. Although they avow to keep it a platonic relationship, that aspect is quickly thrown out and Gilda does what any free-spirited girl in love with two men would do: she lives with both. On the stage, the three central roles were played by Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, and Coward himself, the three having met in the early ’20s when they are all penniless artists in New York, so it is obviously a story close to home for Coward. While Ben Hecht is fine as a screenwriter, the fact that he throw out all of Coward’s dialogue makes to pine to have the playwright’s trademark wit put back in.
Design for Living also provides an interesting example in the history of the film production code. The code went into effect in 1930, but was largely ignored by filmmakers as the production office had no enforcement arm. When an approval system was introduced in mid-1934, Design for Living had already been released, with major changes already made to tone down Coward’s innuendo. But the film was popular and still running in theaters, and the production office condemned it at “a highly irregular story with no compensating moral values of any kind.” Thankfully, the film had already been completed and numerous prints struck. Had this been made half a year later, so much would have been cut out there wouldn’t have been any story left at all.