27 February 2010 | secondtake
Do women really have to sex it up to keep their man? Watch and see.
Why Change Your Wife (1920)
This is a great romp, getting better with every scene. It is not good to women, though, making them out to be selfish and catty. It also makes it seem that a woman's role is to be beautiful for her man, and if she isn't, he practically has the right to leave her. I mean, come on now!
The leads (three of them) are all first rate. The man is a charmer, really convincing and natural, Thomas Meighan. His wife (at first) is Gloria Swanson, a silent screen staple (especially for director Cecil B. de Mille who directed six straight films with Swanson, including the parallel, Don't Change Your Husband (1919). But the third other woman is Swanson's match, Bebe Daniels, and if she isn't as famous, it's only because time is fickle.
Because the three are so well balanced, both in ability and in the way they are given time together (in all three possible combinations, plus all three of them together), the film really builds momentum well. The modernity of flipping wives was probably part of the racy appeal, and it might seem a little staid by our standards, where there is (sometimes) less gravity to a marriage.
Music is key, which might seem odd for a silent film, but by showing us the 78 records being put on, the audience knows what the soundtrack would be. (The actually sound tacked on to my DVD version of this film is a brutal melange of found orchestral pieces that cut in and out, hither and tither.) For those interested in the actual piece called Hindustan that is key in three scenes (and key to the changing sentiments of the women) go to www.archive.org/details/JosephC.SmithsOrchestra-01-07 and you can actually click on piece to hear it (a lively pre-jazz dance type number).
So is this a pertinent film? In a way, it is. It's basic theme of paying attention to what your mate needs, and appreciating their attentions, is pretty timeless. But in other ways the film is sadly, painfully retrograde, and it isn't just because it's 1920. The way the women vie for the man, and the way he lets them, and ultimately the way he treats the Daniels character (who does him no wrong any more than the Swanson one does), is just cheap and tossed around for comedic purposes. Which is how you can take it and enjoy it. More than you'd expect.