Don’t Change Your Husband (1919)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Although the years of big real spectacle were still a little bit ahead of him, this is still rather more lavishly appointed than the DeMille film we just saw; uncle Cecil’s popularity was about to really take off thanks to films like this. As such, we move from somewhat bitter urban melodrama to sprightly marital comedy, with similarly rising star Gloria Swanson; the marriage in this film isn’t exactly happy either, but the outcome is brighter at least… Swanson plays Leila, who’s been married for years (she herself was only 19 when the film was made) to Jim (Elliott Dexter, actually nearly 30 years her senior), and, well, things aren’t brilliant; Jim is essentially amiable and means no harm, but his slackness (around the house and around himself) and his fondness for onions and not using an ashtray is wearing her down. The initially unwelcome attentions of a younger suitor are eventually reciprocated, but remarried life proves not much better. The title kind of gives everything away, really, so no prizes for guessing the ending… but this is a nice example of the “having one’s cake and eating it” narrative strategy DeMille had latched onto by that time, working on the assumption that you can’t show the wages of sin without showing the sin too. DeMille casts it as a comedy of such basic lightness and geniality that it’s hard to object to the ultimate morality of the thing being essentially conservative; Swanson obviously gets understandable credit for her performance, but I also really liked Dexter as the husband, because Jim is basically good, just a bit thoughtless. His realisation that he’s no longer what she needs or wants because he’s let himself go over time gives the material a slightly sadder edge when the story needs it.

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