by HELEN GEIB
Why Change Your Wife? (1920) is a matrimony “comedy” by Cecil B. DeMille. There are two possible responses to a movie like Why Change Your Wife?: mockery and anger. I’ve never been much of a one for laughing at bad movies.
It is not a bad film because it’s badly made. DeMille was a competent director, the stars are talented performers, and plenty of studio skill and money went into making it look good. It’s bad because it’s obnoxious. This is the kind of movie that inspires put-downs like “the people who make Hollywood movies wouldn’t know a real marriage if it walked up and socked them on the jaw.” Or another good one, “any resemblance to any real marriage, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
Thomas Meighan plays Robert Gordon, Gloria Swanson plays his first and third wife Beth, and Bebe Daniels is “other woman” and second wife Sally. Robert and Beth are still on their first marriage when the film opens. We know it’s an unhappy marriage because Beth does things like telling Robert he should cut back on the cigarettes because it’s bad for his health to smoke so much and insisting he keep his dog outside if he can’t train it to keep off the furniture. Worse still, she feels uncomfortable wearing the highly revealing negligee he buys for her and would rather listen to a violin recital than accompany Robert to the Follies.
History has proved Beth right about the smoking and I think we all know that when a man buys sexy lingerie as a present for his wife, he’s really thinking about himself. Those chorus girls at the Follies? Not costumed with Beth in mind. The fundamental problem, however, is that he’s portrayed as an all-around fine fellow and she as a shrew. Her intellectual and cultural aspirations are consistently mocked as vain pretension and for all we see of their life together, she contributes nothing to the marriage except petty interference with regular guy Robert’s “little” pleasures.
Eventually Beth’s manifold failings as a wife drive Robert into Sally’s arms. Beth is unreasonably upset when Robert comes home at 2 A.M. with Sally’s perfume on his clothes and confesses to kissing her, they argue, he tells her to stop packing because he’ll leave the house the next day, and in the next scene they’re divorced. Robert’s parting words to Beth are, to summarize a tediously verbose title card, “it’s all your fault.” This is a judgment with which the film obviously agrees.
The rather odd plot point of a divorce precipitated by an extramarital kiss seems designed to keep the film a comedy while Robert is living (in the married state) with Sally. A wife who suffers silently in the knowledge of her husband’s affair is a matter for drama. A stupid woman who divorces the man she loves out of pique and thus suffers through her own fault when he marries again is a matter for comedy. The second marriage also permits the film to illustrate its thesis that every woman is the same when it comes to being a wife. “Why change your wife?” indeed, since the next one is sure to nag just as much as the first.
Of course, Robert really loved wife number one best all along and is much happier after he divorces Sally and remarries Beth (the remarriage is the coda of a truly ludicrous plot development to which derisive laughter is the only conceivable response). His greater happiness has nothing to do with anything Robert might be expected to have learned from his recent experiences. He was already perfect and had nothing to learn about building a successful marriage. Nor is it due to Beth’s intrinsic superiority as a romantic partner. As Beth is the heroine, Sally is allowed to be less intelligent and more selfish than her rival, but it’s a difference only of degree.
Beth and Robert’s second marriage is a happy one because Beth has learned a good lesson from everything that’s happened. She has learned that the secret of a happy marriage, and concomitantly the wellspring of personal fulfillment for a wife, is to cater to her husband’s every whim and satisfy his every sexual fantasy. In the last scene, Beth pours Robert a drink, lights his cigar, feeds his dog a treat from her own fair hands, and leaves him to enjoy his masculine pleasures while she puts on “something you’ll like.” Ah, a happy ending.
In the unlikely event I someday watch DeMille’s Old Wives for New (real title), The Woman God Forgot (real title), Forbidden Fruit (real title), or Don’t Change Your Husband (could I make this stuff up?), I think I’ll try responding with mockery. The people who were laughing uproariously through Why Change Your Wife? were clearly having a much better time than I was.