Don’t Change Your Husband (1919)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Cast: Elliott Dexter, Gloria Swanson, Lew Cody
Synopsis: Leila Porter comes to dislike her husband James, a glue king who is always eating onions and looking sloppy. But after she divorces him and marries two-timing playboy Schuyler Van Sutphen the now-reformed James looks pretty good.
Before his earlier career was overshadowed by his reputation for making overblown Biblical epics, Cecil B. DeMille was known for directing racy bedroom farces, of which Don’t Change Your Husband is an early example. It teams him with Gloria Swanson, arguably silent cinema’s most famous actress, for the third time in 1919, and Ms. Swanson is easily the best thing in a movie that is mired in a turgid plot that could easily be told in 20 minutes, but which runs on for a further hour before reaching its inevitable conclusion.
Swanson plays Leila Porter, the dissatisfied younger wife of businessman James Denby Porter (Elliott Dexter). Porter is slipping softly into middle age, his waist growing fat, his clothes old and his stogies wet, while the youthful Leila (Swanson was 20 when she played the role, Dexter was 49) yearns not for romance but simply a little attention. After forgetting their wedding anniversary and turning up late for dinner with the vicar and his wife, he tries to pass off the vicar’s anniversary present as his own before tucking into an eye-watering dish of spring onions. It’s fair to say that romance isn’t on Porter’s agenda, and it’s only a matter of time before the long-suffering Leila’s eye will start to wander.
A third guest at the Porter’s anniversary dinner is the challengingly-named Schuyler Van Sutphen (Lew Cody), a slippery customer if ever there was one. Sutphen has a narrow moustache that curls up at its ends – a sure sign that he’s an unsavoury character, but for some reason the love-starved Leila fails to see this giveaway sign and it’s not long before he has lured her away from her husband. Porter responds by getting his act together: he hires a personal trainer, renews his wardrobe and shaves off his moustache. Pretty soon, he’s the one who’s looking good to a disillusioned Leila…
Don’t Change Your Husband is an early chick flick which understands exactly the audience at which it is pitching itself and does little to try and entice others into watching it. Most of the action takes place indoors, in drawing rooms that look overfilled and claustrophobic today, but which were probably the height of chic back in 1919. De Mille displays his tendency for over-elaboration, not only by inserting a predictably exotic fantasy sequence, but by hammering home every message he is trying to put across with a singular lack of finesse. Swanson looks as radiant as always and gives a hugely sympathetic performance despite the fact that she is playing a cheating wife, while Dexter convincingly manages his transformation from slovenly buffoon to sleek panther. But it’s Lew Cody’s sneaky Schuyler Van Sutphen, known as Bingo by his bit-on-the-side, Toodles (Julia Faye), who provides the most amusing scenes.
(Reviewed 22nd August 2012)