What is most attractive about Curtis, of course, is that he’s available. Is any artist ever really working? Not consistently, and not with any kind of momentum, especially if there’s a woman around. Of course, he’s also a bit rash and prone to anger. He pouts, he grimaces. He’s—what do they call it?—the strong silent type, which is all well and good until you need him to say something in a moment of need.
II. Thomas Chambers
A contrarian, such as this writer, might present the alternative: that Thomas Chambers, as played by Fredric March, is the real catch of the film. Consider: even the most unsuccessful playwright (and Chambers is highly unsuccessful) does way more work than a painter. What does a painter do? Think something up and render it physical, lewd, and obvious. A playwright, on the other hand, imagines a whole world composed of characters big and small. He listens to the way people talk—both to and around him—and transposes it into a performed language that feels otherwise altogether new.
Of course, a writer is a dime a dozen, and one has to consider the gangly height and goopy ears on the side of March’s face. If put side to side, as they often are in Design for Living, March is less handsome than Cooper. It was true then and it’s true now that the more handsome man, objectively, is often the less handsome man, subjectively. He is interesting to look at, which never won’t sound like an insult, but why fuck with anything less than interesting. Unlike his paint-spotted comrade, Chambers is not only intrigued by Gilda but willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to get a few seconds with her here and there. He’s easily distracted and willfully waylaid. He’s also kind of whiny, which is not a dealbreaker, but it’s not a dealmaker, either. We’re looking for a boyfriend, mind you, not a baby.
III. Max Plunkett
Don’t date your boss. In an old journal of mine from nearly a decade ago, I once wrote: “Why is it that everyone I am attracted to has control over whether or not I get a job?” Though Gilda is far quicker than I was to realize this (a few months, or about 30 minutes of the film), her longtime boss, Max (Edward Everett Horton), who pines and lusts for her to a greater extent than even he realizes, is not the answer. Long story short: bad call.
IV. Ernst Lubitsch
Okay, Gilda doesn’t actually have to, like, decide between three men and the director of the film adaptation of the play from which she originates, but it’s much to Lubitsch’s credit that this premise feels so light and unpretentious. These are the twilight hours of the pre-Code era, when lush desperation onscreen still feels sexy rather than sinful. Lubitsch, a German-born director, was known for the deft humanity in all his work, plenty of which can be credited to the fact that he was making movies in the pre-Code era far longer than he ever was after it.