Cast & Crew
William C. De Mille
Mabel Van Buren
Spinster Lulu Bett is a drudge in the home of her married sister, Mrs. Dwight Deacon, whose husband is justice of the peace and dentist in the small town where they live. The monotony of Lulu's life is broken by the arrival of Dwight's brother, Ninian, who takes pity on her. He arranges a supper party in her honor and jokingly recites the marriage ceremony with Lulu; Dwight, in his official capacity, realizes the ceremony is binding, and Lulu remains with Ninian until she learns that he has another wife, who is missing. Returning home, Lulu is treated by Dwight as a deserted wife to avoid exposing his brother as a bigamist; and she is the object of unrelenting gossip. Finally, Lulu refuses to be a servant and accepts the attentions of Neil Cornish, the village schoolteacher; and after being notified that Ninian's wife is alive, she is happily married to Neil.
William C. De Mille
Mabel Van Buren
Cecil B. DeMille's Why Change Your Wife on DVD
In 1919, she starred in De Mille's Don't Change Your Husband, as a neglected wife who spurns her spouse in favor of a dashing playboy. One year later, De Mille reformulated the plot as Why Change Your Wife (1920), newly released on DVD by Image Entertainment.
In this bout of man vs. woman, Swanson plays Beth Gordon, a fastidious, charitable, virtuous wife whose utter perfection seems to bore husband Robert (Thomas Meighan), who ponders "the husband's eternal problem -- the strange difference between his wife and the girl he married." The film is peppered with such winking intertitles, that try to make the Gordons' dilemma into a universal marital plague, without taking it all too seriously. "Molten lead poured on the skin is soothing compared to a wife's constant disapproval," is another of the film's many such tastily trite platitudes.
Robert decides to spice up their relationship by ordering Beth a revealing negligee at the local maison chic. There, he encounters childhood sweetheart and all-around "pippin" Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels). When she models a revealing gown for Mr. Gordon, Sally strategically removes a few undergarments...just to enhance his appreciation of the outfit. By contrast, Mrs. Gordon will not wear the negligee without putting on a slip underneath. When Robert encourages Beth to model the new purchase, she wraps herself up in a blanket, thus snipping one of the few remaining threads of romance in their relationship.
Having set her stylish cap for the bored husband, Sally easily lands her prey, and the Gordons are divorced. Robert hooks up with the lingerie model, while Beth finds solace in the company of a celebrated violinist, Radinoff (Theodore Kosloff). But classical violin is no substitute for red hot jazz. Unlike her ex-husband, Radinoff, "makes celestial love to her soul," while keeping his hands firmly on his own instrument. As if further contrast were necessary, Radinoff -- while visiting a spa with Beth -- dresses like a towel boy at a Roman orgy, and Beth soons realizes the cerebral is no substitute for the carnal.
Not surprisingly, the resourceful Beth fights fire with fire, and la Swanson is soon ordering up exotic gowns to dazzle the viewer (and her still-interested ex). "Make them sleeveless, backless, transparent, indecent -- go the limit," she tells the dressmaker, just before stepping out at a posh dance party to retrieve her wayward husband.
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (led by Rodney Sauer) can always be counted upon to provide flavorful and historically accurate scores for silent film, and this DVD is no exception. When Mr. and Mrs. Gordon disagree over their musical tastes alongside the Victrola, it becomes an opportunity for Mont Alto to provide a playful added layer of comedy and meaning to the film. Their concisely orchestrated arrangements make Why Change Your Wife (and its co-feature) an aurally rich viewing experience.
Why Change Your Wife was not written by De Mille's usual screenwriter (Jeanie Macpherson), but by Olga Printzlau and Sada Cowan, from a story by Cecil's older brother William. Vastly overshadowed by his more bombastic sibling, William (who opted for the more understated lower-case "d" when spelling his last name) was an accomplished filmmaker himself, with more than fifty films to his credit. Only a few of these films survive today, but one of the finest of them is included on this DVD as a second feature: Miss Lulu Bett (1921).
No film could better illustrate the difference between the the brothers Mille. While Miss Lulu Bett is also a fable of a woman's sexual liberation, it is a serious, subtly-rendered, naturalistic drama in which negligees, champagne and gigolos never enter the narrative equation. Lois Wilson stars as a sensitive woman who lives a life of veritable slavery in the home of her sister's husband Dwight Deacon (Theodore Roberts). She seems to find a way out of her endless toil when she meets Dwight's swaggering brother Ninian (Clarence Burton), who flirts with Lulu Bett one evening. When they jokingly recite their wedding vows, Dwight (a Justice of the Peace) mockingly declares them married... and the couple decide to let it stand. A week into the marriage, Ninian lets slip that he had a wife who left him years ago, and may yet still be alive. Confused by the revelation, and shamed by the idea of marrying a bigamist, Lulu returns to the home from which she had so recently escaped.
The only character who seems aware of Lulu Bett's suffering is a local schoolteacher, Neil Cornish (Milton Sills), and a romance begins to flower between them, despite Lulu's tarnished reputation and the prejudices of the local townfolk.
Miss Lulu Bett presents small-town life in a way that is radically different from the idyllic depictions common to other films of the day. Its representations of home and family are more akin to the horrors of Erich von Stroheim's Greed (1924), skewering the traditional values that are unquestioningly accepted as noble and pure by less imaginative filmmakers, and showing the sadism and resentment that often linger just beneath of the surface of the most "loving" family.
The film element of Why Change Your Wife (presented with the cooperation of the Cecil B. De Mille Estate and the George Eastman House) shows some signs of age but looks fine for a film of this vintage. Producers David Shepard and Jesse Pierce have chosen to compensate for the softness of the image by enhancing its sharpness. As a result, there is frequently a digital glare on objects within the frame, which is often uncomfortable to the eye.
Miss Lulu Bett (produced by film preservationist Shepard) appears to survive in considerably better condition. The image is stable, reasonably sharp, with excellent contrast, and is therefore free of noticeable digital enhancement. It is a no-frills DVD, but these two films are so rare and so lovingly produced for video that supplemental bells and whistles are not necessary. Outstanding background notes are provided by Robert S. Birchard (portions of which are excerpted from his book Cecil B. De Mille's Hollywood).
For more information about Why Change Your Wife, visit Image Entertainment. To order Why Change Your Wife, go to TCM Shopping.
by Asa Kendall, Jr.