30 June 2007 | wmorrow59
A nicely mounted soap opera of World War One vintage
When we think of Cecil B. DeMille we tend to think of lavish spectacles in period settings, often Biblical, featuring elaborately staged orgies, dances, battles, and at least one slightly naughty bathing sequence. Typically, after entertaining the audience with this material for several reels, DeMille would diligently underscore the story's lesson by punishing the wicked and rewarding the virtuous, and then wrap up the package with some stern moralizing. The director who crafted Old Wives for New hadn't yet developed into the master of Hollywood hokum he would become, but some of his soon-to-be-familiar motifs can be found here in embryonic form. Around the time this film was made DeMille (already working with his longtime collaborator, screenwriter Jeannie Macpherson) began a new series of popular dramas focused on married life in which contemporary mores were examined and questioned. Producer Jesse Lasky encouraged this move, based on a hunch that wartime audiences wanted modern stories which challenged the status quo -- up to a point, that is. The titles of these films often suggested more daring content than the stories actually delivered, for despite the modern trappings DeMille was essentially conservative in his storytelling, but you have to give the guy credit: he sure knew how to draw cash customers to the box office. Old Wives for New turned a handsome profit and set DeMille's course for years to come.
This film is introduced with a rather startling title card addressing the ladies in the audience through the character of Sophy Murdock, wife of the protagonist. Sophy is warned not to take her husband for granted just because she's already "landed" him, and not to become dowdy or bossy. The admonition concludes: "We must remember to trim our 'Votes for Women' with a little lace and ribbon -- if we would keep our man a 'Lover' as well as a husband." Soon afterward, DeMille introduces our protagonist Charles Murdock (played by Elliott Dexter), a brooding oil millionaire who has settled reluctantly into an unhappy marriage. The other main characters are introduced with the kind of quaint cinematic device that is so satisfying in silent movies: after a title card describes them as "the Five Pairs of Hands that Were to Weave the Threads of His Destiny," we are offered close-ups of five pairs of hands, each performing a task characteristic of the person to whom they belong. The chubby fingers of Sophy Murdock, the wife who has allowed herself to become dowdy (i.e. fat), pluck chocolates out of a candy box; Viola, a woman of loose morals, dips her brush in facial powder and daubs it on her face; Juliet, a noted fashion designer, carefully cuts fabric; Bladen, conniving secretary to Murdock, taps away at his typewriter keyboard; and Berkeley, a high-stepping old roué, sticks a key into the lock of his current girlfriend's apartment, opens the door, and enters. Once these introductions are out of the way, we concentrate on the unhappy marriage of the Murdocks.
The Murdocks have been married long enough to have two children who are on the verge of adulthood, but although Charles is still youthful and athletic, Sophy has become dumpy and depressive, lounging around the house in her robe reading the funny papers. They seem to have stayed together due to inertia rather than love. (They certainly look mismatched: imagine William Powell paired off with Marie Dressler.) When Charles broaches the subject of divorce Sophy won't hear of it, so the unhappy husband leaves for an extended camping trip with his son. Out in the woods he meets fashion designer Juliet Raeburn, also on vacation, and their friendship blossoms into love. Animal lovers aren't going to enjoy their "meet cute" scene, however: Charles and Juliet are each out hunting alone, and when they both shoot at the same bear they're brought together for their first conversation over the animal's carcass! In any event, the ensuing affair is a chaste one, but when they return to the city rumors begin to circulate. The situation worsens considerably when the woebegone Charles accompanies his high living business partner Berkeley for a night on the town with a couple of good- time gals, and things get out of hand. A shooting occurs, someone gets killed, there is an attempted cover-up to avoid scandal, poor Juliet Raeburn's name gets dragged through the mud, etc. etc. In the end, after the various complications have been sorted out, the virtuous characters are rewarded and even the "bad" ones get another chance . . . with one exception, anyhow.
Old Wives for New is, in short, a well produced soap opera but no more substantial than an episode of "Dynasty." For me, the story begins to lose any claim on credibility after the crime of passion, when the plot's improbabilities become increasingly obvious. (I haven't seen this film with an audience, but I believe there are moments towards the end that would provoke unintended giggles.) On the plus side, the film is a time-capsule of its era, particularly where clothing is concerned; DeMille's movies are known for sumptuous costuming, especially for the ladies, and this one boasts a lot of great 1918 vintage outfits for viewers who enjoy that sort of thing. It's also interesting to observe the characters' casual acceptance of adultery and divorce, attitudes we might associate with the Roaring Twenties, yet already present at this time. On the minus side, while the leading players are competent enough they're not very interesting, and there's no Gloria Swanson or Wallace Reid on hand to give things a boost. Theodore Roberts, who plays the old roué Berkeley, gives the flashiest performance, but he isn't on screen long. In sum, this is a moderately engaging silent drama that never rises above the standard level. It appears that DeMille did not approach the material with any unusual degree of interest or vigor, but not long afterward, when Miss Swanson arrived on the scene, their work together would produce more exciting results.