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From the Vaults: 'Why Change Your Wife?' (1920)

June 14, 2010 |  2:00 am

Wifehotel For Mary and all the other silent-film aficionados out there, we return triumphantly to 1920 this week! Cecil B. DeMille's tremendously entertaining "Why Change Your Wife?" is one of a slew of romantic comedies he made around this time, following close on the heels of "Don't Change Your Husband," his first pairing with a little leading lady named Gloria Swanson. She went on from "Wife" to star in DeMille's "Male and Female," "For Better, For Worse," "The Affairs of Anatol" and more, and you can see why -- she's absolutely radiant in this film. Even when her character's being a pill, you can't help but sympathize with her.

Swanson plays Beth, the staid and fussy wife of Robert Gordon (Thomas Meighan). Their honeymoon is clearly over: they annoy each other in the bathroom, bicker over the dog and just generally get on each other's nerves. Beth wants Robert to quit smoking and quit spending so much money on stupid stuff like wine. Robert wants Beth to wear negligees and snuggle with him while he listens to fox-trot records; she wants to listen to a more improving record titled "The Dying Poet." Heading out to escape the strife, Robert runs into an old acquaintance, the fetching lingerie model Sally (luminously pouty Bebe Daniels), who happens to adore wearing negligees and listening to fox-trot records. With alarming alacrity, Robert leaves Beth and marries Sally. Will their honeymoon last? What will happen when he discovers that Beth has made herself over and developed a new interest in negligees?

WifebebeThis movie is such a blast. Of all the movies I've watched for this blog, it might be my favorite. The comedy  elements hold up beautifully, the performances are sparkling -- and the fashion is absolutely amazing. It's like flipping through a 1920 issue of Vogue. The camera lingers on hats, hemlines, shoes, parasols, sequins... by the time it was over, I was dying to go shopping, and I don't even like shopping. If you're at all interested in vintage fashion, you must watch this movie.

But it's the comedy that makes it so brilliant. The early scene of Beth and Robert in the bathroom is absolutely hilarious, as they reach around each other, crane their necks to get at the mirror, fidget and glower. You don't need dialogue; the physicality speaks for itself. Later, there's another brilliant scene in which one of Beth's musician friends plays some improving violin music; DeMille cuts to all the women in the room sighing with rapture, one by one, then to a man nodding off in his chair. When all three leads end up in the same hotel toward the end, the movie dives merrily into French-farce territory. The climax even turns on a slippery banana peel. I could not stop laughing.

Amid all the wackiness, though, the characters are genuine people, and the performers really make you feel their torment and heartbreak. WifebathingsuitMeighan's Robert, perpetually baffled by the women in his life and their effect on him, is clearly sort of an idiot, but his bewilderment is genuinely moving at times. Daniels' Sally may vamp it up, but beneath it all she's just a silly young girl with a crush on someone.

Swanson's Beth gets to be the real hero, undergoing a real transformation as she adjusts her ideas of what being a wife is supposed to be. You could argue that her makeover is incredibly sexist, but when she's lounging in the middle of a hotel in a fabulous new swimsuit, giggling and literally fending off men with her parasol, she seems genuinely satisfied with herself. She may still love her ex-husband Robert, but she's having quite a fine time without him, thank you.

I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say the ending of the movie involves a knock-down, drag-out, no-prisoners catfight in which two women threaten each other with a bottle of acid. I've never seen anything like it. Don't miss this movie!

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from top: Robert encounters Beth in her new bathing suit; Daniels prepares to do some seducing; one of the many very wonderful title cards.

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