Thursday, November 10, 2005

Design For Living, or, Who Needs Subtitles?

I love Ernst Lubitsch's Design For Living (available in The Gary Cooper Collection in a pretty good print) for many reasons.

I love the performances: Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins all did some of their best work here.

I love the fact that Lubitsch and writer Ben Hecht dared to abandon almost all of the Noel Coward play the movie is based on, at a time when this was considered sacrilege (Coward was highly prestigious at the time, and a faithful movie version of Coward's Cavalcade had won the Academy Award), and came up with funnier characters and better dialogue than the original.

I love Lubitsch's use of elliptical and oblique jokes; no one has ever matched Lubitsch when it comes to mining humor and drama from things that are not said, or things that are not shown. Random example: the scene where Fredric March gets a letter announcing that Hopkins and Cooper have slept together. We never see the letter, we never hear what's in it; we just see his reaction to it, and witness his complete deflation. And it's not just about getting stuff past the censors (who, even in 1933, would have come down hard on some of the things that go on in the picture if they had actually been shown onscreen); it's Lubitsch's whole working method, to give every joke a fresh spin by keeping some part of it hidden from view. Gary Cooper breaking something in anger wouldn't be anything new; keeping the camera on Hopkins and March, sitting calmly but uncomfortably while we hear something break, is different and funny.

I love the suggestive visual jokes that would become hard to pull off only a year later, when the studios started enforcing the Production Code more rigorously; the shot of two obviously phallic flowers, presented to Hopkins as a wedding present from the two heroes, would seem like a raunchy joke even today:

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I love the combination of Lubitsch's less-is-more style of building jokes and scenes with Hecht's more direct, wise-guy sense of humor. So yes, there are a lot of reasons to love this movie. But -- and here is where this post does a complete detour into something else:

One little thing I love about Design For Living is that the first dialogue scene (after an extended silent sequence) is conducted entirely in French. Cooper meets Hopkins on a train in France, and, each assuming that the other is French, they start talking, and then arguing, in French. (The first English line in the picture is "Oh, nuts!") There's another thing to love about the film: Gary Cooper speaking French, and, despite the American accent, speaking it quite well. But the great thing about this conversation is that it is conducted entirely without subtitles or any other method of indicating what the words mean in English; nobody translates it for us.

I'm not even sure if subtitles, as opposed to captions and intertitles, were commonly in use in 1933, so maybe the choice to do the scene in without subtitles was made out of technical necessity. Still, I always like it when a film contains conversations in a foreign language without feeling obliged to translate it for us. (This is more common in French or Italian movies, where you might frequently hear a few lines of dialogue in non-subtitled English, than in English-language movies.) Nowadays any line of foreign-language dialogue has subtitles, even if it's only "Bonjour" or "Adios." But if you look at, say, the German-language scenes in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three -- made in 1961, by which time subtitles were very common -- the scenes are in fluent German and unsubtitled, and Wilder assumes that we will pick up what's going on by means of the visual cues and the occasional recognizable word (you don't have to speak German to figure out, from the onscreen conversations, that "Americanischer spion" means "American spy").

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