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

Thoughts On: “Orphans Of The Storm” (1921)

By the time the Roaring Twenties dawned, D.W. Griffith was well-established as a Filmmaker of Renown. Rising to acclaim with his Biograph shorts and becoming an industry giant with his epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), he reached new heights of artistry with Broken Blossoms (1919) and even managed to transform an old-fashioned stage melodrama into the mega-hit Way Down East (1920). With a new decade before him and the ever-changing film industry gaining new directors and stars every day, he must’ve wondered how to keep up the pace. What should his next big project be? Could he keep that level of acclaim high?

Reportedly at Lillian Gish’s suggestion, Griffith decided to adapt another old-fashioned stage melodrama to the big screen: The Two Orphans, about the plight of two sisters who are separated in 18th century Paris. In keeping with his love for the Epic and Emotional, he shifted the setting to the violent heart of the French Revolution.

Was it a success? It was respectably well-recieved at the time, but doesn’t seem to have made much of a splash. Watching it today with Griffith’s other Epic Emotional films in mind, I think I can see why. And yet…I find myself popping it into my Blu-ray player at least once a year.

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Thoughts On: “The Mystery Of The Leaping Fish” (1916)

Hello all, hope you’re doing well! I took a little break earlier this month because…well…I figured folks might be a bit distracted. *wink* What to do while we’re getting back to somewhat normal? Cover one of the least normal films of all time, of course!!

None of this is photoshop.

So if you haven’t seen The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, I…really don’t know how to prepare you for The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. Gently, with a rose? With a joke-filled monologue? With a solemn discussion of its historical background? With a parental advisory label? This, after all, is a short that manages to be adult-themed, in bad taste, shocking and weirdly innocent all at the same time. I may need to ponder this on a remote mountaintop for a few weeks.

“…I still got nuthin’.”

Or I could just hurl you right into the plot and hope for the best. Problem solved!

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4 Unique Examples Of Soviet Silent Animation (I Am Sorry)

So here’s a post I couldn’t quite fit into my Soviet Silents Month schedule. The idea was there, but the time? Not quite there. (I could’ve used a few extra, err, years for that month’s research.)  But I decided to dust the idea off and post it now, because after watching these films I need to know that others have experienced them, too. I need that kinship. That camaraderie. I’m not trying to say that watching these shorts brings on a creeping sense of Kafkaesque dread, but I’m sure not denying it, either.

Dziga Vertov's Soviet Toys | HISTORY OF RUSSIAN AND EASTERN ...

No secret dog whistles to Cthulhu here! No, sir. (Image credit: Animation-Stories)

If you’re in need of a major distraction, look no further than these curious examples of silent Soviet animation–because you’ll find it impossible to look away. But a word of caution: if it’s bedtime and you’ve just eaten something weird, believe me, these will not help the nightmares. Consider yourself forewarned. Also, just wanted to say right away: I am sorry. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Earth” (1930)

This is the final post for Soviet Silents Month. The research wasn’t easy, but it was a fascinating and important era to explore. I hope you’ve enjoyed following along!

It opens with vistas of ripening wheat fields, rippling in the wind of the Ukrainian steppe. Fertile seeds from fertile soil–there’s a long history behind the familiar sight. It cuts to a medium shot of a young woman standing beside a sunflower, the sky providing a natural background. Both are also connected to the fertile soil. Seeds, fields, sun, harvest, life–those few shots elevate their humble subjects into symbols of the most natural, the most beautiful order of things. 

Image result for dovzhenko earth

Thus begins Earth (1930), perhaps the most poetic of the Soviet silents, frequently placed on “Greatest Films” lists. Like Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929) it was made to glorify collective farms, finishing shooting shortly before Stalin’s deadly policies of forced collectivization went into effect. Yet there is depth in the operatic Earth that seems to transcend its subject–at least according to many interpretations. 

screenshot Earth 3 cows Continue reading

Thoughts On: “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Think back to the last time you were at a movie theater, sitting through all the previews. We’re all familiar with the style of those previews: montages introduce the main characters, show pieces of action, throw in snippets of dialogue, and everything’s set to music. For action films, there’s usually a fast-paced guns-a-blazing montage towards the end. You may not realize it, but every time you see these kinds of montages you’re glimpsing Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Image result for battleship potemkin Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Haunted House” (1907)

In the annals of old-timey horror–and don’t get me started on those 19th century ventriloquist dolls–some of the weirdest and most gleefully grotesque imagery of all can be found in our oldest silents. One example that leaps to mind is Segundo de Chomón’s The Haunted House, a six-minute film from 1907 that you’ll doubtless recognize from this still:

Haunted House '08 goblin

Ah yes, that one–with the hairy, paint-streaked demon with admirably bushy eyebrows. Also known as The Witch House, La Maison Ensorcelée, or The House of Ghosts, this frolicsome–hold on, is it called The Haunted Hotel too? Oh, that’s a different 1907 film–that’s not de Chomón’s too, is it? And wait, is The House of Ghosts actually an entirely different film from 1906? What’s going on?? Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Lost World” (1925)

While its embarrassingly belated due to not having a speck of spare time over Labor Day weekend or much in the past week (man, I hate being busy), this is officially the last post of Silent Stop Motion Month! I hope you enjoyed the series as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about it. It’s back to “normal” for awhile, but don’t forget…October Is Coming! 😉

In a world overflowing with dinosaur toys, books on prehistory, fossil exhibits, and Jurassic Park movies, dinosaurs are so popular that its hard to imagine life (or our childhoods) without them.

Image result for inflatable dinosaur costume

…Some folks have a harder time imagining it than others.

So difficult as it may be, try to picture a time when dinosaurs weren’t rampaging across our screens, a time when the illusion of prehistoric monsters coming to life was something very new…and exciting. After all, the scientific study of dinosaurs as we know it today had only been around since the 19th century, gaining steam during the Gilded Age. It would take a visionary like Willis “Obie” O’Brien to take his boyish enthusiasm for these long-gone creatures and figure out a way to bring them to the big screen.

Image result for lost world 1925 dinosaurs

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Thoughts On: “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

If you were going to pick just one silent era stop motion short to watch–just one!–I’d happily recommend an early work by Ladislas Starevich: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912). Yes, you’re reading that right–from 1912! Because despite being over a century old, it showcases a timeless skill, serves as an excellent introduction to silent era stop motion, and is pretty funny, if you ask me. Plus, depending on how well you know your classic comedies, the story just might be familiar…!

screenshot CamRevenge 4

The Cameraman’s Revenge was part of a series of Ladislas Starevich shorts starring insects–and, by the way, he made the puppets using actual dead insects. He’d gotten the idea while trying to film a stag beetle fight (he was an avid insect collector and reportedly worked for a natural history museum). After some failed tests with live beetles–hot studio lights didn’t put them in fightin’ moods–he decided to recreate the fight with stop motion. The method was macabre, but ingenious: he took dead stag beetles apart and preserved their shells, then pieced them back together with wire and bits of sealing wax. The finished product was, err, a flexible, all-natural, upcycled organic puppet (rebranded for any trendy types who happen to be reading).

Note the teeny 1910s-style camera!!

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Thoughts On: “Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy” (1909)

“Princess Nicotine”! Doesn’t that sound like a relic of old-timey kids’ entertainment that appears woefully inappropriate to modern audiences. Fortunately, the landmark early short Princes Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy (1909) only slightly fits that description. (By the way, I wasn’t sure at first which fairy in the film was Princess Nicotine, but apparently, the older fairy is the Princess. The More You Know!)

screenshot Princessnicotine wary fairy

This strange but charming showcase for early “trick effects” was made by J. Stuart Blackton, also the brains behind animation milestones like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) and The Haunted House (1907). In a breezy five minutes we’re shown a bachelor relaxing at home, filling his pipe before growing sleepy and setting it down as he dozes off. As he snoozes, two fairies hop out of a cigar box and decide to play a prank on him. He awakens, discovers the prank, and a mischievous tit for tat ensues. (And yes, that approximately 12-year-old actress is smoking a cigarette in that one scene.) Continue reading