This cleverly conceived short film, just recently rediscovered and preserved, offers proof—if any is needed—that silent comedy had a lot more to offer than pie-throwing and wild car chases. The Model Husband is a social satire, reminiscent of the sophisticated comedies of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew, and like entries in their popular series it finds humor in recognizable, everyday human foibles rather than slapstick. Theater buffs may be reminded of Moliere's Tartuffe, because this is the story of a supposedly virtuous, even saintly man who is exposed as a hypocrite. And like that play, it is both amusing and highly satisfying.
Harry Myers, best remembered as the drunk in Chaplin's City Lights, plays Mr. Cherub, "so good and pure he wears a halo," according to a title card. And yes, he certainly does! In the introductory scenes a halo literally hovers over Mr. Cherub's head as he glides about his apartment, serving breakfast in bed to his wife and children. And we observe he is more righteous than other men: when he joins a group of regular guys who are chatting on a sidewalk, he literally drops in from the sky (on a wire of course), lingers a few moments, and is whisked away again. Incidentally, it appears that Mr. Cherub's male companions don't much enjoy his company.
This opening sequence is so funny, dreamlike and over-the-top we suspect it's a fantasy of some sort, a make-believe version of Mr. Cherub's public image, not the reality. And so it is. We know this, because next we're shown the man's actual behavior, i.e. the way he behaves when he's not on public display: he's mean to his wife, and even throws crockery at her. (Mrs. Cherub is played by Rosemary Theby, best remembered as the long-suffering wife of W.C. Fields in his classic talkie short The Fatal Glass of Beer.) But when he steps outside, he once again behaves like a saint. He serves as president of the Society for Honor & Virtue, he is called upon to counsel a man with a drinking problem—because, of course, Mr. Cherub is believed to be a teetotaler—and he is even proposed as a candidate for Mayor. But cracks begin to appears in his facade, as word gets out that the "cough medicine" he drinks in secret is actually booze, and that his motivation for "counseling" a young woman in his office after hours is something other than Platonic or paternal in nature. And Mr. Cherub's reputation, job, and marriage all come crashing down!
Is this a timely story, or what? Although it was produced over 100 years ago, we find nowadays that stories very much like this one are playing out again and again in the worlds of politics, show business, and public life in general. The Model Husband is not only a clever and amusing silent comedy from 1916, it's a strangely prescient morality tale for viewers in the 21st century.