Old Wives for New (1918)

This feature-length drama by Cecil B. DeMille shows his more sophisticated side, after opening his career with simple Westerns like “The Squaw Man” and “The Virginian,” and moving into racier material with “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” Considered scandalous at the time, and often censored for its frank dealing with questions of infidelity and divorce, it stands today as a kind of an unwitting critique of the gender order.

Disgusted by the unattractive, slovenly appearance of his wife Sophy (Sylvia Ashton), Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) goes on a long hunting trip. He meets Juliet Raeburn (Florence Vidor), falls in love with her, and while telling her of his love, he reveals that he is a married man. Upon his return, his secretary (Gustav von Seyffertitz) allows Murdock’s wife to learn of his dalliance, and she, imagining the worst, flies into a frenzy of jealousy. To forget, he goes out with his business partner Tom Berkeley (Theodore Roberts), meets Jessie (Julia Faye), who is being provided for by Berkeley, and Viola Hastings (Marcia Manning) who is looking for a rich boyfriend. Jess shoots Berkeley when she finds him in another woman’s bedroom and Juliet Raeburn’s name is connected to the scandal by a false report made by Mrs. Mudock at the secretary’s urging. Murdock, to protect Juliet, goes abroad with the gold digging Viola. After his wife obtains a divorce and marries the secretary, Juliet and Murdock meet in Venice, renew their friendship, and marry.

Essentially, this movie delivers what the title promises: a man throwing over an old-looking wife for a younger model. But, DeMille is at pains to make him seem to be a decent person, and to argue that the original wife, in ignoring her duties to the family and her man, is the one to blame for the situation. She wakes up late, runs water for a bath, then decides not to bother and lets it run down the drain, ordering breakfast in bed because she is “unwell.” Most of what we see her eat are chocolates or sweets of one kind or another. She is lazy, fat, and lets “the house run itself, for the most part,” resulting in badly cooked eggs that her husband refuses to touch. Her vindictive attacks on the innocent Juliet just strengthen the audience’s sense of her as the villain of the piece. But, despite himself, DeMille also makes her a victim of both the men in her life – her husband for abandoning her for a younger woman and the secretary, whose only interest seems to be the money she will win in her divorce, and who instigates most of her worse decisions.

DeMille also made the interesting decision of casting his mistress (Faye) as the mistress of the playboy millionaire (Roberts). Her character is shallow, flighty, greedy, and jealous, and ultimately commits murder and then agrees to keep quiet about it to protect the reputation of the man who wronged her. I don’t know what this says about their relationship; Faye remained with him (clandestinely) for many years and was in more than thirty of his pictures. It’s hard to imagine, then, that DeMille treated her as badly in person as he treated her character in the movie! Overall, however, the movie doesn’t seem to reflect a man who had a great deal of respect for women or understanding of their position within the world. Only Miss Raeburn, a virgin, is portrayed sympathetically as virtuous.

With all of that said, this is definitely a technically satisfying film. DeMille had only been making movies for four years since he got started with “The Squaw Man,” and he’s kept up admirably, and probably even pushed some innovations, as we saw with “The Cheat.” Here, he makes heavy use of close ups to create a more intimate connection with the characters for the audience, editing is zippy, and for the most part intertitles are used sparingly, just to give enough information to keep the audience engaged. The performances are good all around and especially those of Dexter and Vidor work to sell the story, however problematic it may be. The screenplay, by Jeanie MacPherson, is sprinkled with sophisticated humor, which probably could have been better handled by a Lubitsch, but it works fine in DeMille’s hands as well.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Elliott Dexter, Florence Vidor, Sylvia Ashton, Theodore Roberts, Marcia Manon, Julia Faye, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Tully Marshall, Edythe Chapman, Raymond Hatton, Charles Ogle, Madame Sul-te-Wan

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).