Why Change Your Wife? (1920) A Silent Film Review

It’s Gloria Swanson’s turn to be the offending party in this DeMille marital comedy. She is a lovely young prude who moralizes her husband right into the waiting arms of another woman. Only then does Gloria realize that she has made a mistake and a little romance helps in marriage. Armed with this knowledge- and a wild wardrobe- she sets out to win back her man.

Romance? Date nights? What are you, some kind of deviant?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Robert Gordan (Thomas Meighan) may on the surface seem to have a pretty good life. He lives in a nice home and is married to pretty Beth (Gloria Swanson). But that is the very root of his problem. Beth, you see, is a very good woman. A very, very good woman. Always out to improve her own mind and morals, she includes her husband in her course of self-improvement.

Robert wants some more romance in his marriage and decides to try to woo his wife. Romance her with pretty presents and the like. His quest takes him to a dress shop to buy a negligee for his prudish darling. The negligee in question is a delightfully over-the-top creation modeled by the kittenish Sally (Bebe Daniels). She giggles, flirts and generally makes Robert feel very important indeed. The contrast with Beth is even more marked when he gets home with his present. Beth declares him a pervert for expecting her to wear such a garment.

Off Robert goes to the waiting arms of Sally. The whole matter culminates in divorce, with Robert quickly making an honest woman of Sally and marrying her. But deep down, Beth and Robert are still in love.

Robert tries to woo his prudish wife.
Robert tries to woo his prudish wife.

This would be a pretty sad ending if not for an overheard conversation. Beth hears women gossiping about the divorce, blaming the whole thing on Beth looking more like Robert’s aunt than his wife. Aided by her Aunt Kate, Beth decides that if Robert and other men want women to be flashier, she will go all out. “Sleeveless, backless, transparent, indecent – go the limit.”

Meanwhile, Robert is discovering that marriage to Sally is rather like marriage to Beth, without Beth’s good qualities. The sweet flirtation is gone, replaced by weeping when she does not get her way. Marry in haste…

Sally in the offending negligee.
Sally in the offending negligee.

A chance encounter with the newly-fashionable Beth at a hotel rekindles Roberts interest and Sally suddenly finds herself on the defensive against a more attractive rival. But, unlike the formally passive Beth, Sally is not about to let Robert go without a fight.

Why Change Your Wife is the best of DeMille’s matrimonial comedies. First there is obvious chemistry between his leading man and both his leading ladies. Second, the plot is smoother and easier to follow than the choppier Don’t Change Your Husband. It is not interrupted by fantasy sequences or strange historical flashbacks.

Robert and Beth discover each other, but only after the divorce.
Robert and Beth discover each other, but only after the divorce.

In one of her best “clothes horse” roles, Swanson is completely charming. Whether fluttering around her bathroom looking for the right perfume or enjoying her new status as a babe, she has an endearing liveliness.

Thomas Meighan, a more staid actor, is an excellent complement to her, providing a stable character for flighty Beth to contrast against. Bebe Daniels, fresh from her partnership with Harold Lloyd (she left his act in 1919), successfully graduates from supporting vamps to a larger (though still vampish) role.

Beth’s secret weapon: the swimsuit to end all swimsuits (in 1920 anyway)
Beth’s secret weapon: the swimsuit to end all swimsuits (in 1920 anyway)

Why Change Your Wife is a refreshing reminder of why Cecil B. DeMille was such a popular director. Before becoming addicted to historical treacle, he made films that were sharp and funny. He had a deft eye for the inherent humor in a relationship, particularly a marriage, and put it on screen in a stylish and charming way. The combination of romantic comedy, stylish clothes and lovingly filmed mansions and hotels proved to be a potent combination and the magic still works. Movie fans owes it to themselves to check out DeMille’s non-epic offerings. Why Change Your Wife is certainly a wonderful choice.

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Where can I see it?

Why Change Your Wife is available on DVD from Image. It is bundled with William deMille’s brilliant Miss Lulu Bett.