And now you know what every husband knows: that a man would rather have his wife for his sweetheart than any other woman: but Ladies: if you would be your husband’s sweetheart, you simply must [emphasis original] learn when to forget that you’re his wife.
This injunction, delivered in the conclusion of Why Change Your Wife? (1920), which would not be out of place in a women’s magazine today, offers an indication of why Cecil B. DeMille’s trilogy of “divorce comedies,” Old Wives for New (1918), Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), and Why Change Your Wife? thrilled audiences at the dawn of the Jazz Age. These films offer a view into a world where husbands and wives changed partners like evening-wear amidst extravagant bathrooms, boudoirs, and masquerade balls. The release of these films on DVD will certainly prompt scholars interested in flappers and postwar commodity culture to jump back almost a decade from the canonized Clara Bow vehicle It (1927) to DeMille’s prescient trilogy.
Don’t Change Your Husband, the story of a woman who learns the folly of changing husbands, is paired with The Golden Chance (1916), a husband-swapping melodrama directed by DeMille three years earlier. Why Change Your Wife? originally written by Cecil’s older brother William C. DeMille, is offered with William’s most acclaimed surviving film, Miss Lulu Bett (1922). These are the most recent of the DeMille silents David Shepard has produced for DVD, which include The Cheat (1915), Joan the Woman (1917), Male and Female (1919), and the first installment [End Page 98] of the trilogy Old Wives for New (1918) released with The Whispering Chorus (1918).1
The “divorce comedy” genre initiated by Cecil B. DeMille in the United States and Mauritz Stiller in Sweden was incredibly popular with postwar audiences and reflected deep ambivalences in U.S. society.2 After the indifferent success of Joan the Woman (1917), Jesse Lasky urged DeMille to “get away from the spectacle stuff for one or two pictures” and appease the public’s demand for “modern stuff with plenty of clothes, rich sets, and action” with an adaptation of David Graham Philip’s novel, Old Wives for New.3 Adolph Zukor, though, was reluctant to release Old Wives for New while he was taking pains to reassure the public, and women’s uplift leagues and church groups in particular, that his studio released only “wholesome dramas” and “clean comedies.”4 Although Motion Picture Classic griped, “It is extremely difficult to build up a pleasing romance upon a foundation of divorce,” the film was a success and Lasky encouraged DeMille to direct a sequel, Don’t Change Your Husband.5 The fan magazine Motion Picture explained that “So many wives wrote indignant letters to DeMille about ‘Old Wives for New,’ that C. B. and his clever writer, Jeanie Macpherson, wrote a story from the wives’ standpoint.”6 Husband broke attendance records at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles and launched the career of Gloria Swanson. The Los Angeles Times noted that since joining the “DeMille forces,” Swanson had become “a sort of fad with young women all over the country, so far as her striking mannerisms and her particular manner of dressing is concerned, and this is true among the sophisticated fans of the big towns equally with those of the small.”7 When Why Change Your Wife? was released a year later, Motion Picture News observed that the final film in the trilogy “practically throws that which most people call part of the moral code overboard with its teaching” and “presents its principal characters as people who have about as much regard for the sanctity of the marriage vow ‘as an Arab does for a sun bath,’ ” but the film grossed over a million dollars, more than seven times its cost of production.8
Don’t Change Your Husband tells the story of a self-absorbed husband, James Denby Porter (Elliott Dexter), who pushes his...