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.

Continue reading

“A 180 Pound Diamond”–The Bright Life And Tragic Death Of Wallace Reid

It’s an unfortunate fact that many stars are known mainly for a scandal or unfortunate demise. A lifetime of triumph and failure, hard work and reward, love and struggle–all are scoured away the second topics like “mysterious death” or “addiction” enter the picture. The individual involved dwindles down to a name, a “character” from long-ago times.

A prime example is Wallace Reid, major leading man of the 1910s and early 1920s. As a performer, he’s known mainly to silent film buffs. As a name, he has the sad distinction of being the first major Hollywood star to die of a drug addiction. “Drug addiction”–what a sledgehammer of a phrase. Decades of scandals have unfortunately accustomed us to scandals in Hollywood, but back in the early ’20s Reid’s death truly shocked the world.

Sunset Gun: The Roaring Road to Ruin: Wallace Reid

But before we cover the tragic aspect of his life–and it was truly a tragedy–let’s get to know “Wally,” the well-liked Renaissance man whose good looks are at home in any decade. 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

Obscure Films: “Old And New” (1929)

Because of Diana Serra Cary’s passing, I delayed this post for a couple days. My piece on this strange and fascinating film could’ve been twice as long–I hope you find it enlightening!

Now we are able to carry on a determined offensive against the kulaks, break their resistance, eliminate them as a class and replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms. Now, dekulakization is being carried out by the masses of poor and middle peasants themselves, who are putting complete collectivization into practice…Consequently it is now ridiculous and foolish to discourse at length on dekulakization. When the head is off, one does not mourn for the hair.

–Stalin’s speech on agrarian policy, December 27, 1929.

…On some occasions, the exemplary organization of local work, even on a small scale, turns out to be more efficient for the State than a large number of State institutions under centralized control.

–Lenin quote from the opening titles of Old and New

Marfa Lapkina in Staroye i novoye (1929)

To many people, the phrase “collective farm” has little meaning. It’s a dry-sounding term, something you might find in wordy papers on yesteryear’s agricultural practices. And that’s partly true. However, few other phrases from the 20th century have such an incomprehensible weight of dramatic, tragic, and deadly history behind them. To say that the two words “collective farm” represents one of the biggest disasters of the last 100 years is putting it in mild terms.

When Eisenstein began work on the often-overlooked The General Line, later called Old and New (The Old and the New, technically) he was ostensibly doing his duty as a loyal Soviet director. One of the great plans of the communist Soviet government (its “general line,”) was to restructure the very foundation of the USSR: its agriculture. Old and New’s propaganda on this weighty topic would perhaps be the most blatant of Eisenstein’s career. It’s a pity he didn’t have a crystal ball. Continue reading

“Stark Love” (1927) And The Very Brief Career Of Helen Mundy

While browsing through old film magazines online (how often have I said that), an unusual photo caught my eye–a young woman with intense eyes, peasant-like clothing and long, unkempt hair. Oh, and she was gripping an ax.

Image result for helen mundy stark love"

Happily the full version is online.

Not something you see in those polished magazines every day! I had to find out the story behind it, and what turned up was one of those “rags to riches” types of Hollywood tales–with a unique twist. Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Coward” (1915)

“Honor” has become a foreign term to us today. The idea of defending one’s honor seems quaint, and even funny–think of Oliver Hardy in Tit for Tat (1935), accused of fooling around with a man’s wife. Indignant over this smear, he declares dramatically: “My character. It has been ‘smirched. Ruthlessly dragged through the mud and mired…Never let it be said that a Hardy’s spotless reputation should be so maliciously trodden upon!”

We of course laugh at Ollie’s melodrama. But there was a time when honor did indeed have the utmost importance in many people’s lives. It was the backbone of numerous old families, the foundation of their day-to-day routines, and was expected to be defended quite literally to the point of death. Can we even wrap our minds around a time when parents would be crushed by the idea of their son not volunteering to go to war? I can’t think of a better illustration of this seemingly inscrutable mindset than The Coward (1915), one of the most riveting Civil War dramas of the silent period.

The Coward screeshot 1 Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Home Maker” (1925)

And now that my new laptop is up and running, we’re finally back in business! I’ll try and get some extra posts out this month, too. 🙂

Some of the silent era’s finest gems weren’t big epics or artsy Expressionist dramas, but smaller, quieter pictures, set in modest parlors, humble tenements, and kitchens where a full tea kettle was always sitting on the stove. Intimate melodramas like True Heart Susie (1919) or Master of the House (1925) gently examined the most relatable and engrossing stories of all: the triumphs and travails of “regular folks.”

Home Maker lobby 1

And people loved those kinds of films back then, too. While largely forgotten today, Over the Hill (1920) and Tol’able David (1921)–melodramas with intimate storytelling and salt-of-the-earth characters–were two big hits of the era. Actors like Charles Ray made careers out of “gosh and golly” personas, and after filming his mighty epics D.W. Griffith was happy to turn his attention to “little” pictures like A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and The Greatest Question (1919). Many of these dramas that survive can still captivate us. After all, as spoiled as we may be by high-quality CGI, brilliant colors and swooping camera movements, we still can’t resist a plain good story. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1912)

This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s 2019 spring blogathon, Femme/Homme Fatales of Film Noir. A warm welcome to any new readers–feel free to have a look around Silent-ology!

The first intertitle of The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) starts with four words: “New York’s Other Side.” Director D.W. Griffith wouldn’t have realized it at the time, but these words were ushering in the new genre of the “crime drama”–as well as its offspring, the gangster picture and film noir.

Image result for the musketeers of pig alley

The 18-minute Biograph short wasn’t the first to depict crime, of course (a number of early films did, such as A Desperate Encounter Between Burglars And Police, 1905), but it’s the best and earliest surviving prototype of a gangster film. All the familiar notes are there: the introduction to the “dark underbelly” of a city, the charismatic crime leaders, the tough dames, and the crowded, rundown neighborhoods. The hardboiled gang members slinking through deserted alleyways and Lillian Gish’s character giving Elmer Booth a disdainful slap all have their echoes in film noir. Continue reading

Thoughts On: “The Son of the Sheik” (1926)

This is the final day and final post of Sheik Month. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at Roaring Twenties sheik culture, and thank you kindly for stopping by! And I’m looking forward to what posts the spring and summer will bring (hint: a trip’s on the way!).

In 1926, Rudolph Valentino’s stardom was at its height. At the young age of 31, the Italian screen idol’s name was known around the world, there were several box office successes under his arm, and women adored him so passionately that public appearances often ended with his hat being stolen and buttons torn from his coat. Today, we look at portraits of this near-mythical figure dressed to tailored perfection with the light shining off his patent-leather hair, and wonder what thoughts were behind that meditative gaze. Perhaps he would surprise us–a few months before appearing in what would be his final film, The Son of the Sheik, Valentino spoke frankly about his romantic image: “The whole thing is false and artificial. You can’t go on and on with it…One appears to be what others desire, not what one is in reality.”

Image result for the son of the sheik 1926 duel role

Be that as it may, in The Son of the Sheik Valentino proved that he could, indeed, “go on and on with it,” at least for one last time. Five years after appearing in his iconic role of Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik (1921), he agreed to appear in the film’s sequel–despite his dislike of being pigeonholed as a “sheik.” Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro films had brought sequels into vogue, and the fans, naturally, had been clamoring for more desert romances. And perhaps Valentino also agreed to the film since this time he could show his range–even having a dual role. Continue reading