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Larry Harnisch reflects on Los Angeles history

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

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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Comments (9)

Love this movie, and love DeMille before he got all full of himself. Thomas Meighan is a hunk, and you can really see how and why Gloria and Bebe became stars!

I always get this one confused with "Don't Change Your Husband," and the never-made "Please Change Your Underwear."

Sounds like a great flicker, AED. I wouldn't mind seeing it myself. I saw one early Gloria Swanson movie years ago at the Silent Movie theater of Fairfax and it was fabulous. But tell me, that infamous bathing suit she wore in this film, was it a three piece suit, or a four piece?

I think at least 17 pieces are involved in the bathing suit (not to mention the pivotal negligee, which comes with a sort of cape thingy).

Eve, I'm afraid I've only seen that second movie.

You ladies probably missed the ever-popular "What? You bought more pairs of shoes? How many pairs of shoes does one gal need?" I think Ben Turpin was in that, portraying the husband.

This was DeMille's over the top fashion and bathtub period. Meighan, Swanson, and Daniels had all been around for awhile, but this really put them on top. They were all undeniably glamorous and good looking. People had style then! Oh, if it was only the case now!

If I can get all girly for a second, I love the idea of going into a store and having a live person model outfits for me while I put up my feet and drink tea. Clearly this was an era when people still had to be encouraged to go shopping. That would be the era for me!

Hello Anne,

By the way, that's DeMille regular Theodore Kosloff as the fiddle-playing Lothario, Radinoff. Kosloff was a steady presence in the DeMille troupe and by 1920, with this film, one of the hardest working character actors in town.

I wrote about Kosloff's double life as a ballet dancer/actor in the Times here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/arts/la-ca-kosloff5-2009apr05,0,6136422.story

Enjoy! I am still researching Kosloff for those who wish to connect ...

Cecil Blount DeMille made romantic comedies? He didn't just make big, expansive(and expensive)epics like "The Ten Commandments"? Wow! (This is almost a bigger shock than finding out Alfred Hitchcock, the British-born master of mayhem famous for films like "Rear Window" and "Psycho", made one called "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" about a couple that discovered they weren't legally married. Hmmm...any more secrets to be uncovered in Movieland?

Thanks for the link, Debra! That's a great story. I do love Radinoff and his seductive strings!


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