Thoughts On: “Why Change Your Wife?” (1920)

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s spring event, the Hidden Classics Blogathon! Silent-ology is proud to take part alongside so many excellent film blogs, and on such a good topic, too. Please follow the link above to read my fellow writers’ contributions! And don’t forget to leave comments–we bloggers love comments like Keystone Kops loved pratfalls.

When I say “Cecil B. DeMille,” you probably picture Biblical films with men in robes giving solemn speeches and loads of colorful spectacle. Would you be surprised to know that in the 1910s most audiences heard “DeMille” and probably pictured ballgowns and romantic triangles?

Why Change Your Wife? (1920) - Rotten Tomatoes
Not to mention sleek lobby cards?

He may be known for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) today, but from the late 1910s to the early 1920s DeMille was associated with fluffy “society” comedy-dramas. Yes, the same man that Kevin Brownlow described thusly: “Commanding absolute loyalty from his staff, he directed as though chosen by God for this one task.” These dramas tended to have the aforementioned lavish gowns (often on the “extreme fashion” end of the spectrum) and exquisitely-tailored tuxes. Scenery might include raucous parties or impractically huge sunken baths. DeMille delighted in adding various “rich people” toys like fancy Victrolas or plush couches with hidden bars in the armrests. Gloria Swanson couldn’t just walk over and answer the phone–she would have to be sitting at a pretty carved wooden desk and take the phone out of a little cupboard on top.

Why Change Your Wife? - Wikiwand
There are also negligees that involve furs. Yes, furs.

While many of these trinket-cluttered fantasies were considered superficial even back then, they’ve aged into delightfulness today. The “edgy” fashions seem charmingly bizarre, and characters contend with various social annoyances that are sometimes endearingly quaint. There’s usually more of that universal human nature than meets the eye, too, even if it was livened up by an inexplicable Babylonian fantasy sequence or two. I wholeheartedly champion every frame of these films, from scenes of Bebe Daniels perfuming her lips or Wallace Reid destroying a drawing room in righteous anger right down to the last shot of a checkered, bead-bedecked bathing suit. At least, I think that was a bathing suit. Or was it a negligee…?

…Bathing suit.

It’s a tough call, but my favorite early DeMille is probably Why Change Your Wife? (1920), one of my go-to silents for those nights when I just need to kick back with some cheesy popcorn and relax. Starring a young Gloria Swanson, the squeaky-clean matinee idol Thomas Meighan, and a flirty Bebe Daniels, its tale of marital distress is handled with plenty of light, cheeky humor (especially in the title cards).

Why Change Your Wife? – Cecil B. DeMille

Swanson plays the prudish Beth, who nags her husband Robert about becoming more cultured and “improving his mind.” Robert himself (played by Meighan) can’t understand why Beth insists on dressing so frumpily and longs for her to be a carefree “sweetheart” again. Hoping to add some pizazz to their relationship, he goes to a fancy lingerie store to buy her a new negligee. There he meets Sally, the store’s va-va-voom lingerie model, who recognizes him as an old acquaintance she once had a crush on.

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

When Robert’s present of a tissue-thin, elaborately-beaded negligee (complete with a headdress!) is rejected by the horrified Beth, he decides to secretly go on a date with the fun-loving Sally. Sally is all too happy to pursue him, leading to matters going too far and Robert having regrets. Unfortunately for him, Beth finds out about the affair and divorce quickly follows. But matters don’t end there–Beth overhears gossip about her failed marriage, insinuating that her prudishness and frumpy clothes were the problem. Incensed, she decides that if an “indecent” flirt is what people want to see, then by golly she’d get a new wardrobe and show them all! And perhaps she can win Robert back in the process…

Gloria Swanson, "Why Change Your Wife?", 1920 | Laura Loveday | Flickr
Becoming more va-va-voom.

Parts of the plot haven’t aged quite like a fine wine, but I bid you to consider that the remainder of the film involves lots of “extreme” fashion, an unfortunate slip on a banana peel, a catfight, and a deeply serious artiste in the world’s most ridiculous male bathing suit. In other words, it’s a film I’d say has far more plusses than minuses, my friends.

Why Change Your Wife?, lobbycard, from left: Thomas Meighan, Gloria... News  Photo - Getty Images
Even Getty Images can’t spoil the myriad of plusses in this image.

Adolph Zukor once said, “DeMille didn’t make pictures for himself, or for critics, he made them for the public. He chose stories if he thought the public might like them. He was a showman to his smallest finger.” Indeed, DeMille’s films of this period were sometimes criticized as superficial, or just plain silly. But he released hit after hit, filling his dramas with scandalous intrigues and sunken bathtubs to his heart’s content.

Digital Collections | Bebe daniels, Movie photo, Silent movie
And the occasional catfight.

I have to say, at the end of a tough day there’s certain old films that always hit the spot. Keaton films. Chaplin shorts. Anything by Keystone. And Why Change Your Wife? is on that list. Great performers, great costumes, drama, humor, escapism, and plenty of cheese–those late Edwardian DeMilles had a bit of it all.

And perhaps I’ll end with this generous observation by David O. Selznick: “You cannot judge DeMille by regular standards…As a commercial film maker, he made a great contribution to our industry.”

Why Change Your Wife? (1920) Thomas Meighan, Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels | Your  wife, Silent movie, You changed

11 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “Why Change Your Wife?” (1920)

  1. Ack1 I am so in love with this post. For some not good reason, I haven’t seen this film and I simply do adore Miss Gloria. I am simply drooling over these stills. Sorry, but I have to go now and find this film!!

    • Happily for you, there’s some copies on YouTube! With a soundtrack and everything, ha ha. Gloria is adorable in this film, you’ll love it!

  2. I am currently reading Gloria Swanson’s autobiography and am particularly enjoying her relationship with deMille. Is there a copy of this film on line somewhere, either digital or dvd?

    • Yup, you can find it on YouTube and there’s for sure a DVD that was released by Image Entertainment a few years ago. Not sure if there’s a newer one– if not, there needs to be!

  3. Great entry in the Hidden Classics Blogathon Lea. This is one of DeMille’s classics and you write an interesting review of it. He would carry the same theme to more excess in the wild talkie Madame Satan. Thanks for participating in the blogathon.

  4. I *love* the early DeMille films—”The Cheat” and “Male and Female” are special favorites—but yes, this one would have to be at the top of my list—a really charming and entertaining film. Wonderful performances by Swanson and Daniels, and most especially by Meighan. It’s easy to see from this why he was such a matinee idol.

    Yes, the clothing is indeed interesting, if bizarre. That Robin Hood bathing suit… well, I’m not sure what to say about it…. 🙂

    And on the Image dvd (which is still available), there is a wonderful score by the The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I especially like that intoxicating and exotic theme used for the lingerie shop scene.

    I’m glad you chose to write about this one! 🙂

    • Once that bathing suit has been seen, it cannot be unseen.

      The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra can do no wrong, if you ask me. When I play a silent with their score, I always know it’s them right away!

      Meighan is an actor I’ve been meaning to cover. Someday I’ll get to him!

      • Excellent! And one other thing I like so much about the Image dvd is that the other film is another favorite of mine, “Miss Lulu Bett,” directed by brother William deMille. He was not too shabby in the directorial department, either. 😀

  5. I like this and Swanson’s other DeMille silents that made her a star. Watching this film followed by ‘Sunset Blvd’ is mesmerizing. In the DeMille-Swanson films she’s a star in the making and in the other, made 30 years later, she’s an ex-star, a forgotten relic of a long-gone era. Stars come and stars go. But not DeMille – he’s not gone and forgotten. DeMille even has a scene – playing himself – in the latter film. Reality and fantasy overlap. Both films are great entertainment. But only one of them is a great film.

    • Stardom really is such a weird phenomenon. These people tend to embody certain values or cultural ideas, which is why they become so popular… but it’s also why stardom is so fleeting. Life is change and stars are often trapped in the roles which made their names in the first place. A few could change enough with the times (compare flapper Joan Crawford to the shoulder pads Crawford of the 1940s), but many were unable to and so faded.

      Swanson is a gem of a performer and I love her work, but her stardom pretty much did her career in when you think about it. I saw her in a 1930s talkie INDISCREET the other year and while she isn’t bad at all, something about her is lost with the dawning of the Depression era. Her image is just too intertwined with the Roaring Twenties, all the talent in the world be damned. It’s what makes stardom so double-edged and intriguing.

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