According to sources cited in Phyllis Ross’s excellent book Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living, the Design for Living House (John C. B. Moore, architect; Gilbert Rohde, interiors) built for Chicago’s 1933 A Century of Progress Exposition, was named in honor of Noël Coward’s successful Broadway play by same name by Rohde’s second wife Gladys –who had a “flair for publicity.” It was a smart choice since the penthouse set seen on-stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater actually did feature modern furniture by Rohde (purchased at Macy’s, along with Paul Frankl and Howell Co. Chromsteel furnishings, by set designer Gladys Calthrop).
While Rohde’s use of the name was fitting for the modern home he helped create for the Chicago fair, Lubitsch’s film adaptation of the play was decidedly less aligned with the style of the original. In regards to the film adaptation (which you can see in our Hollywood Modern series), Coward is commonly cited as having said “I’m told that there are three of my original lines left in the film – such original ones as ‘Pass the mustard’.” Even so, the film does feature several sophisticated sets, designed by Hans Dreier and Ernst Fegté for Paramount.
The first half of the film establishes the meager Parisian garret apartment shared by struggling painter George (Gary Cooper), playwright Tom (Fredric March), and eventually their shared romantic interest, commercial illustrator Gilda (Miriam Hopkins). Dark, cluttered, and seemingly without right angles, the cramped apartment perfectly reflects the trio’s bohemian lifestyle–and poverty.
By the time we arrive at the film’s second half, success has been found by most involved–along with a break in the men’s friendship and less complicated living arrangements–as illustrated by a series of more glamorous settings like the theater where Tom learns of George’s artistic accomplishments.
But the highlight is George’s Parisian penthouse, shared with his “secretary” Gilda. Bright, spare, and appointed with an elegant assortment of angular modular furnishings and chrome accents–it is the converse of the apartment once shared by the three friends at film’s start.
The final contrast to the trio’s unconventional love triangle comes in the form of the grandiose, period revival manor home of Gilda’s unexpected husband, Max. She so clearly does not belong in its confines, surrounded by the home’s revivalist trappings, that when faced with the return of George and Tom at the end, her choice to leave comes as no great surprise.