Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cecil B. DeMille "Old Wives for New" (1918)

"Old Wives for New" (1918) is a silent drama starring Elliott Dexter, Florence Vidor, and Sylvia Ashton. Directed by Cecil B. DeMille and based on the novel by David Graham Phillips, this film is about a millionaire who has settled reluctantly into an unhappy marriage. Charles Murdock, played by Elliott Dexter, is a wealthy successful oil tycoon who is well-dressed and dignified. He also looks much younger than his age. On the other hand, his wife, Sophy, played by Sylvia Ashton, is no longer the beautiful and slender girl he married twenty years ago. Instead, Sophy has become an overweight, unkempt woman. The couple has two teenage children, Charley, played by J. Parks Jones, and Norma, played by Helen Jerome Eddy. Murdock is not only repelled by Sophy's appearance, but also by her lack of cleanliness toward the house. Before leaving on a hunting trip with his son and male secretary, Murdock tells Sophy he wants a divorce and she can think about it while he is gone. On his hunting trip, Murdock meets Juliet Raeburn, played by Florence Vidor, another camper who is an attractive and successful dressmaker from New York. Although their friendship blossoms into love, just prior to leaving, Murdock admits to Juliet that he is a married man. Matters worsen when Charley happens to mention Juliet to his mother and Murdock's scheming secretary allows Sophy to find Juliet's perfumed handkerchief. At this point, Murdock decides to take a trip to New York to meet his partner, Berkeley, played by Theodore Roberts, and asks his daughter, Norma, to accompany him. Murdock and Norma meet Berkeley, who has his much younger mistress, Jessie, with him, at a dress shop which belongs to Juliet. Although Murdock declares his love for her, Juliet refuses him because he is a married man. That evening, Murdock accompanies Berkeley and Jessie for a night on the town. At the night club, Berkeley flirts with another woman and invites her to join them at their table. Infuriated, Jessie walks out on Berkeley. After leaving the nightclub, Berkeley brings his new girlfriend to his apartment. Meanwhile, the butler lets Jessie into Berkeley's apartment. Jessie enters the bedroom and begins to fight with Berkeley's new girlfriend. Jessie fights with Berkeley's new girlfriend until she retreats to the floor. Jessie then pulls out a gun and shoots Berkeley in the stomach once and ends up killing him. Although Murdock tries to cover up the incident as a death by heart failure, a newspaper reports that it is rumored Berkeley was shot after an argument with his business partner over a woman. In a spiteful rage, Sophy calls the newspaper and tells them Juliet is the "other woman" and will be named in her divorce proceedings. How can these complications be resolved?

"Old Wives for New" (1918) became the first DeMille film in a major group of productions that provided the most valid sociological examination of sex and marriage that was ever undertaken in American silent films. The series ranged from light comedy to serious moralizing. The brilliance of these domestic dramas are sure to secure the lasting fame of DeMille as a unique director more firmly than a review of his spectacles. DeMille had no competition from other directors in his ability to convert the bedroom and bath into arenas for the spectacle of the American battle of the sexes. In fact, placing scenes of these domestic dramas in the bathroom was forbidden territory to other directors. In his autobiography, DeMille points out that he made "Old Wives for New" under pressure from Paramount's New York office. Jesse Lasky wanted DeMille to get away from his period settings for one or two films and try to do modern stories of great interest. DeMille decided that the majority of theater patrons were mainly curious about money and sex. When Paramount's head, Adolph Zukor, saw "Old Wives for New" he thought it was such strong material that he seriously considered not releasing it at all. He was opposed to releasing it until a test screening proved it would make money. Even though the subject matter was cause for concern, DeMille handled it delicately and the film is not much more than a well produced soap opera. One of the most surprising scenes in "Old Wives for New" is when Berkeley, played by Theodore Roberts, is shot in his bedroom by his mistress. Instead of falling to the floor, DeMille has him walk carefully to the bed, sit on it, and then lets us see the blood slowly beginning to ooze through the pleats of his white dress shirt. The main characters' casual acceptance of adultery and divorce, attitudes we don't associate with the teen years in Hollywood, was also quite surprising to me. I thought the idea of a husband and wife no longer courting their mate was a great topic for a film. With its groundbreaking subject matter, "Old Wives for New" created a sensation among postwar movie-going audiences. The "Roaring Twenties" were just ahead and the moral climate was changing.

*It is interesting to note that Florence Vidor, who was King Vidor's first wife, was one of the most impressive and skillful actresses of the period.


  1. Silent, You have written a very entertaining review. So this must be a very entertaining film. Love the pictures you added to your review. I will look to see what info. can find on one of the actors.

  2. Dawn, this is a very entertaining film and the film is only around 75 minutes long. I forgot to mention in my review that this film has beautiful interiors and I loved watching the 1918 outfits. I think this was the first film in which there is a bathroom scene. The plot is complicated and it plays like a soap opera. I found this film to be very enjoyable.


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