Cast & Crew
Cecil B. Demille
James Denby Porter, the glue king, is too involved with his work to pay attention to his wife Leila or his personal appearance. Tired of his neglect, Leila divorces him, and marries Schuyler Van Sutphen. She discovers that Van Sutphen is a philanderer and is even worse than her first husband in his neglect of her. In Leila's absence, Porter has reformed and paid more attention to his appearance. He is still in love with Leila and takes her back. The couple are reunited with changed attitudes.
Cecil B. Demille
Cecil B. DeMille's Don't Change Your Husband on DVD
In Don't Change Your Husband, Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard ) stars as Leila Porter, a neglected society wife who yearns for the romance that seems to have evaporated in her onion-eating, cigar-smoking, money-obsessed husband James (Elliott Dexter). Enter Schuyler Van Sutphen (Lew Cody), a sleek American sheik who appreciates the finer things in life, including Chinese jade, high-stakes gambling, and other men's wives.
Although faithful to the core, Mrs. Porter cannot help but notice the differences between the two men in her life. When he forgets their anniversary, Mr. Porter proffers a check for $1,000. Her would-be suitor, meanwhile, sends her flowers and a poetic note. Leila appreciates Schuyler's creative approach to seduction. At the dinner table, Schuyler offers his indecent proposal not with a vulgar confession of love, but by toying with a set of wooden dolls that adorn the tabletop (knocking aside the groom and inserting his own doll next to the bride).
Ironically, when she frees herself of her ball-and-chain, Leila discovers that her suave and sophisticated "other man" has bad habits of his own, and that her husband inversely has qualities to which she had been blind. A well-mannered struggle ensues to restore order to the romantic universe, even if it means changing husbands yet again.
There were limits to the degree to which adultery and divorce could be dramatized in a film of 1918. It was necessary that DeMille (and regular screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, whose contributions to DeMille's body of work should not be underestimated) present such taboo subject matter through visual and verbal metaphors. As a result, the film is rich with wry humor and playful innuendo. These are the qualities that make Don't Change Your Husband so fun to watch -- much more enjoyable than the straight-faced spectacles with which he would become synonymous.
A good example of the multi-layered imagery comes as Mrs. Porter, standing on a balcony, is wooed by a vine-climbing Schuyler (both of them in Shakespearean garb, as it is a costume ball). Mr. Porter, meanwhile (dressed as a court jester), enjoys a cigar beneath a laughing statue of Pan. Overhearing Schuyler's romantic overtures, the fool of a husband playfully encourages him, not realizing that the object of Romeo's affection is his own wife.
Less charming are the catchy but pious title cards that are sprinkled throughout the film, which offer moral platitudes of pre-Jazz Age wisdom: "Why is it that a Man who will run no risk with his Business -- will run every risk with his Wife?" Only in this respect does the film begin to feel outmoded.
It is the passion smouldering beneath the well-coiffed surface of Mrs. Porter that gives the film its tension, but DeMille opted to break through this mask of refinement in a saucy fantasy sequence. In the final stages of the seduction, Schuyler describes to Leila a tableau of heavenly bliss. "If I were King -- I'd bring you three priceless gifts: 'Pleasure' -- 'Wealth' and 'Love,'" whereupon we are treated to a prolonged sequence of Victorian-era decadence. To illustrate "pleasure," maidens frolic around a pool, while Leila (in filmy robes) cavorts in a large swing and is given offerings of a white dove and a goblet of wine. "Wealth" is characterized by exotic barely-clothed manservants piling chests of jewels at the feet of the the elaborately costumed Mrs. Porter. A leotard-clad suitor demonstrates "Love," squeezing juice from a bunch of grapes into the reclining Leila's mouth. Today, the sequences seem a bit quaint, but it was undeniably clear that DeMille had stumbled upon ground that was fertile for further development. In subsequent films, the fantasy sequences would become more lengthy, and increasingly decadent until they virtually overwhelmed the film's moral messages.
In its DVD presentation, Don't Change Your Husband lives up to the high standard of its producer, silent film preservationist David Shepard. The film is digitally mastered at a historically correct projection speed, color tinted and features the original illustrated title cards. Detailed liner notes by historian Robert S. Birchard provide much-needed historical context to the films. Excerpted from his book Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, the essay is presented as a paper insert (not viewable as on-screen text).
The score, performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, is adapted from musical themes that were popular among theatre accompanists of the period (compiled by Rodney Sauer and Susan Hall). Crisp and concise, Mont Alto's score beautifully enhances the formal nature of this comedy of manners, occasionally indulging in musical whimsy to flavor the moments of subtle comedy that might go unnoticed behind a more rambling score. Most memorable is a scene in which Mrs. Porter compares her suitor's impeccable attire to her husband's slovenly appearance, while strumming on a ukelele. Mont Alto deftly bounces between the playful uke (tightly synched to Swanson's fingerwork) and a series of dour musical responses (that provides a reminder of the grim reality of her marital situation). This coalesces beautifully with DeMille's careful editing of the scene, yielding a taste of silent cinematic expressiveness in its purest form.
The only complaints about the presentation are the no-frills menu design and the excessive sharpness of the image. The picture appears to have been so digitally enhanced that a "ringing" appears on certain visual elements (such as the artwork of the title cards). But these are mere quibbles. Films from 1918 seldom exist in such fine condition, and are rarely presented on DVD with such care and obvious affection.
Also on the DVD, practically relegated to the role of supplemental feature, is a complete DeMille feature of 1915, The Golden Chance.
The Golden Chance (which DeMille would remake in 1920 as Forbidden Fruit), typifies the director's more serious brand of social drama. Curiously, it deals with many of the same issues of longsuffering wives, negligent husbands and suave suitors, but from an utterly bleak perspective.
Cleo Ridgely stars as Mary, a woman who has married beneath her station, and her husband Steven (H.B. Carpenter) has turned out to be a hard-drinking criminal. Fallen from social grace, Mary takes a job as a seamstress for a wealthy matron. The matron and her husband (Edythe Chapman and Ernest Joy) decide to use the young and beautiful woman as bait for a potential investor, Raymond Manning (Wallace Reid). Thrust into the midst of a swank society dinner, Mary captures the attention of the wealthy and debonair Manning. Although she clearly yearns for Manning, Mary must repel him, because she is already married. When Steven discovers Mary's "infideltity," he concocts a plan to blackmail Manning, but has clearly underestimated the society man's intelligence and resolve.
The Golden Chance is hardly DeMille's best work but, in this context, it is quite a fascinating film. It shows a remarkable contrast in the way DeMille treats similar material. While Don't Change Your Husband kept the morality of its characters neatly defined, The Golden Chance is frought with moral ambiguity -- especially in its troubling "happy ending." The perfect companion piece to Don't Change Your Husband, it provides wonderful insight into the DeMille marital melodrama in two radically different incarnations.
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by Asa Kendall, Jr.
Cecil B. DeMille's Don't Change Your Husband on DVD
Filming began on 7 November 1918, but was interrupted less than an hour later when (false) reports that the war was over reached Paramount, and everyone was sent home for the rest of the day.
Some sources list this production as a six-reeler. Although the title of the Phillips novel on which this film is supposedly based was not listed, two possible titles are Old Wives for New (New York, 1908) and The Husband's Story (New York, 1910).