BFI Southbank was abuzz on 10 April for the BEV festival screening of Why Change Your Wife?, featuring a superb live score created and performed on stage by the Niki King Jazz Quintet. The film, shown in sparkling digital transfer, is a witty marital comedy starring Gloria Swanson as newly married Beth, who is determined to improve her husband Robert’s mind. He (Thomas Meighan) would rather pursue other pleasures with her — such as dancing the foxtrot.

Gloria Swanson as Beth
Gloria Swanson as Beth

Beth doesn’t care about style. She dresses down and wears reading glasses. She introduces Robert to serious music — a performance by virtuoso Russian violinist Radinioff (Russian ballet dancer Theodore Kosloff), who turns out to be something of a Lothario.

Why Change Your Wife - Cecil B. DeMille - 1920

To spice up their love life, Robert goes shopping to buy clothes he hopes will change his wife into the vamp he would prefer her to be. In the Maison Chic he is surrounded by women draped in exotic orientalised gowns and shoes and accessories that leave him bewildered and excited.

Thomas Meighan as Robert
Thomas Meighan as Robert

At the gown emporium he meets model Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), who sets her sights on him even though she finds out that he’s married. Sally is aware of her charms and has no compunctions about using them to snare her quarry.

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Sally wears her heart on her shoulder
Sally wears her heart on her shoulder

Robert resists her advances and ends up buying a revealing negligee for Beth, but she is horrified and refuses to wear it without underclothes. Sally visits Robert at his office on the pretext of returning something he left at the shop. Just at this moment, Beth turns down her husband’s invitation to a show because she wants to attend a more highbrow event, and Sally and Robert go to the show together. At her apartment later, as Beth waits for Robert at home, Sally tries to seduce him and they dance the foxtrot. Beth is upset when Robert gets home late and they quarrel. The rift gets worse and Robert decides to divorce Beth and marry Sally. Stung by gossip that her lack of clothes sense drove her husband away, Beth decides to acquire a new wardrobe.

Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit
Beth fascinates Robert with her new bathing suit

Her makeover is dramatic. On holiday at a luxury spa with her Aunt Kate (Sylvia Ashton) she shows off her new bathing attire, complete with  bejewelled sandals and daring leg bracelet worn below the knee. Her revamp is a magnet for the male guests, including ex-husband Robert, who is at the spa with new wife Sally. When Robert is clearly attracted to Beth, Sally flirts with Radinioff, who is also at the spa (wearing a revealing bathing suit himself) and has pursued Beth. Beth and Robert independently decide to leave, ending up on the same train. Back in the city, when Robert slips on a banana skin and is knocked out, Beth arranges for him to be taken to her place to recover. He cannot be moved for 24 hours, so Beth telephones Sally to let her know. A jealous Sally insists on taking him back home, at which point the film appears to tip over into revenge melodrama. Beth threatens Sally with a vial of acid, whereupon Sally attacks Beth, breaking a mirror, and throws the acid in her face.

Beth is attacked by Sally
Beth is attacked by Sally

In a brilliant comic reversal, the acid turns out to be eye wash (Beth was bluffing). But the brief foray into violence and melodrama is telling: there’s a moral there somewhere about the consequences of investing too much in appearance. Sally leaves and Robert is reconciled with Beth. They remarry and in their new home Beth wears her glamorous bohemian wardrobe and dances the foxtrot with Robert. Why change your wife when she can change so you don’t have to?

Why Change Your Wife?  is a delight. A Gloria Swanson vehicle, it plays with the star’s reputation as leader of style and fashion. Clearly aimed at the female audiences who were so significant in the 1920s, it not only puts costume design on display but also at the heart of the narrative. The numerous close-ups of fashionable items of clothing eroticise shoes and accessories to create fetish objects that capture the eye and the heart and awaken libidinous desire.

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This highlights the tie-ins that operated between film and fashion in the teens and twenties — department stores were often involved in promoting movies, frequently hosting fashion shows. The costumes are a tour de force, designed by Clare West and Natacha Rambova, who was probably responsible for the exotic extravagance of the fashionable gowns. Rambova, a protégée of Theodore Kosloff, was known for her bohemian elegance. She worked on other Cecil B. DeMille productions and went on to become a leading costume and set designer, working with Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino on prestigious art productions. Costume adds so much to the film — sometimes the designs are so over the top they are comic in themselves, satirising women’s attachment to fashion and cinema’s exploitation of it. 

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The costumes also send up the vogue for orientalism and the female types in circulation at the time. In spite of her transformation into a vamp, Beth is unable to behave like one and remains a good wife — albeit one who is capable of using deceit to get her way. At the end, a compromise is reached and Beth emerges as a domesticated version of the vamp. The somewhat unstable resolution reminds all wives they should remember to be sweethearts sometimes — but not before a lot of fun at the expense of marriage is had on the way. 

A very enjoyable experience — thank you BEV 2014 and the Niki King Jazz Quintet!

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© Pam Cook