Why Change Your Wife?: Cecil B DeMille and the New Woman

Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife?
Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife?

Why Change Your Wife? screens with a live score by Niki King as part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival on 10 April 2014 at BFI Southbank, at 6.10pm

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson

Cecil B DeMille is perhaps predominantly remembered for his big-budgeted biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. For instance, the captivatingly lurid Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments are both still television staples. However, DeMille had a career that spanned several decades and he made more than 50 films in the silent era alone. Many of these early titles were similarly lavish and sensationalist, whilst also seeking to exploit contemporary social concerns.

Jesse L Lasky, Vice President of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), encouraged “modern stuff with plenty of clothes, rich sets, and action”. Savvy to the growing female audience, Lasky contracted screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson to portray women “in the sort of role that the feminists in the country are now interested in … the kind of girl that dominates … who jumps in and does a man’s work.” The result was several delightful, enormously successful, marital comedies, starting with Old Wives for New and followed by Don’t Change Your Husband. Why Change Your Wife? completes the “does what it says on the tin” trilogy. With their focus on female glamour and desire, these films offer more permutations of the “New Woman”, which Birds Eye View has explored in previous Sound & Silents strands.

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Considering his somewhat indomitable, patriarchal image, it is perhaps surprising to find a large number of women amongst Demille’s regular collaborators. Anne Bauchens edited his films, from Carmen (1915) all the way through to The Ten Commandments (1959), his last film. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that it was an essential clause in every contract that she be his editor. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner he is quoted as saying that: “‘though a gentle person, professionally she is as firm as a stone wall … We argue over virtually every picture.”

Scriptwriter Sada Louise Cowan, who collaborated with Olga Printzlau on writing Why Change Your Wife? recalled Demille’s somewhat bullish behaviour on their first meeting: “He told me I’d better make my living with my brains [rather] than any beauty I thought I had.” Cowan eventually became one of DeMille’s highest paid writers. Printzlau was a prolific writer who began her career as an artist and actor but turned to screenwriting after becoming interested in the “literary possibilities” of film. She worked at several of the studios and in 1920 signed a five-year contract with Famous Players-Lasky, but broke the contract, seemingly preferring the freedom working freelance gave her. By 1925, in a Los Angeles Times article describing the progress of women screenwriters, Printzlau is identified as a successful freelancer who is able to command a $500 a week salary. Macpherson, one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, was another regular DeMille collaborator, and her powerful position meant she wasn’t afraid of intimidating fledgling stars such as Gloria Swanson (see Swanson on Swanson for more on this).

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Next to Mary Pickford, Swanson was the most powerful female star of the 1920s. DeMille had wanted to work with her since seeing her leaning against a door in a Mack Sennett comedy. Her background in slapstick served her well and, like Pickford, she was an incredibly versatile actor. The box office success of the DeMille films gave her contract leverage and made her one of the highest paid and most powerful stars in Hollywood. When her contract was up for renewal at Paramount in 1926, she turned it down in favour of an offer made by Douglas Fairbanks, Charles Chaplin and Pickford to join United Artists, where she could produce her own films.

The films that emerged from the tightly knit crew at Paramount often sought to gamble on risqué subject matters, such as divorce and infidelity, in a period before the Hays Office clamped down. They broke many screen taboos, for instance the ban on bathrooms as settings for intimate marital scenes. As he recalled in his autobiography, lavish bathrooms became something of a DeMille trademark.

The films are indeed beautiful to look at, with masterful mood lighting by Alvin Wyckoff and sumptuous sets by Wilfred Buckland. The ravishing gowns in the film were designed by Natasha Rambova, who designed the costumes for Alla Nazimova’s Salome (a previous Sound & Silents title). Cultural historian Sumiko Higashi has argued that emphasising fashion in these films was a way to defuse public reaction to the controversial issues contained within them and Why Change Your Wife? certainly stresses style over sin. As memorable as the surface distractions though, are some of the more ordinary everyday activities that the films show, the daily rituals of the couples (brushing their teeth, petty arguments), which were rarely seen up till this point on the screen.

Jeanie Macpherson with a photograph of Cecil B DeMIlle
Jeanie Macpherson with a photograph of Cecil B DeMIlle (Women Film Pioneers Project)

Often celebratory of the burgeoning consumer culture, as Sumiko argues, the films allow their female heroines to be “transformed into a clothes horse and sexual playmate”. Not entirely “feminist” perhaps, but as films written by women for women they certainly give us some insight into how women were redefining themselves in the jazz age.

Despite the preponderance of women in the industry in the silent era there was still a great deal of sexism. DeMille’s propensity to surround himself with female collaborators led to gossip in the press about his “harem”. However, these women contributed to films that were pioneering in style and content, laying the path for Hollywood Lubitsch and screwball comedies. Macpherson, Prinztlau and Cowan between them scripted hundreds of films and wrote influential articles and manuals on screenwriting, demonstrating yet again the extraordinary contribution women made to the formation of Hollywood cinema.

This post is indebted to the Women Film Pioneers Project: an ever expanding, ever fascinating online resource exploring women’s role in the silent film industry.

By Kelly Robinson

Read more by Kelly Robinson


Why Change Your Wife? USA. 1920. Dir Cecil B. DeMille. With Gloria Swanson, Bebe Daniels, Thomas Meighan. 91 mins. U.

One of several marital comedies Demille made with a host of female creatives this is early Hollywood at its most delectable. Robert (Meighan) and Beth’s (Swanson) marriage has lost its spark, but when Robert falls for a sassy lingerie model Sally (Daniels) Beth vows to win her husband back with a fabulous new wardrobe and a show-stopping comeback. With palpable chemistry between its stars and costumes to rival a Vogue cover shoot, Moving Picture World called it “as near a 100 per cent perfect picture”.

Niki King

Performing a vibrant new live score for jazz quintet, Niki King is one of the UK’s leading singer-composers and winner of the prestigious Perrier Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award. A favourite of the live jazz scene, King has won national acclaim for her original compositions including entirely self-penned 2011 album ‘It’s All Good’ as well as stunning performances including tributes to Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington. ‘Tour-de-force’ Scotsman.


3 thoughts on “Why Change Your Wife?: Cecil B DeMille and the New Woman”

  1. It was a massive pity that the score was so wildly inappropriate. That intrusive drum solo during the swimming-pool scene was very distracting. That moment when the singer started to croon “Who’s that woman?” just at the moment a title card flashed up to say exactly who she was…. Just 2 examples etched on my mind at a distance 8 months from that catastrophic screening. It was a great shame because it was a magnificent print of a great film. The musicians let their egos get in the way of presenting the film. instead they detracted massively from it and ruined the occasion both for me and my guest who had never seen a classic silent before.

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