Saturday, 12 April 2014

She’s the love of your life… Why Change Your Wife? (1920) w Niki King Band, BFI BEV

A Cecil B DeMille romantic comedy might not seem an obvious choice for the second in the series of the Birds Eye View Film Festival Sounds and Silents. The strand celebrates women in film and in jazz playing along with film and, rightly or wrongly, DeMille is perhaps more thought of as an exploiter rather than promoter of women.  But as the programme notes pointed out there were a number of key female collaborators for Mr DeMille beyond the two master comics we saw on screen (more on Bebe and Gloria in a mo’…).

Anne Bauchens edited all of his films for over forty years and here, as in his other silents, her expertise is evident in smooth transitions and state of the art story pacing. The stunning gowns were designed by Natasha Rambova who went on to work on Nazimova’s Salome – and her fashions are very much the co-star of this film – as my wife said: if only it was in colour!

Bebe Daniels and Gloria Swanson
The script was written by Sada Louise Cowan and Olga Printzlau, for-knowledge of which helps to off-set any modern sexual-political misgivings to an extent with their witty script detailing how the marriage contract can make the heart go duller… if both parties are not careful.

Gloria Swanson’s star power tends to further shift any un-even-handedness: she’s the story fulcrum and the character we care most about and events tend to unfold at her pace. Why change your wife? She’s Gloria Swanson you fool!

As if that wasn’t enough, the alpha male DeMille’s work was further feminized by the live score provided by British jazz ace Niki King who’s cleverly composed song-track gave sympathetic voice to Swanson in particular. We knew who Niki was rooting for!

Aided by a band on organ, harp, double bass and drums, Ms King’s music made this one of the most syncopated and swinging silent evenings I’ve enjoyed at the BFI reflecting and reinforcing the relentless pace of the film. Maybe jazz is getting like Shakespeare? You need to be an exceptionally fluent player to really make it ring true to modern ears: the form is “old” but the meaning, the message and the passion is timeless. Niki King achieved this and in doing so helped to un-wrap a very fresh silent film for the audience.

Bebe Daniels and Thomas Meighan say cheers!
Why Change Your Wife? was one of a series of sex-comedies DeMille made around the turn of the twenties and it dealt with marriage in a very swinging, pre-code way… he always did get away with what he could in this area of human fantasy.

Gloria Swanson is Mrs Beth Gordon who is all too comfortably married to husband Robert (Thomas Meighan). They’re inability to co-ordinate their morning bathroom routines reflect their divergent cultural and personal interests. Beth throws herself into middle-brow improving books and listens to serious classical music whilst Bob just wants to tango and to go to the follies… there’s a slight gender inversion here: he’s the jazz baby?!

Bob gets with the beat
Robert decides to spice things up and goes to buy some racy evening wear for his wife. The clothes are modelled by young Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels) who has longed to run her fingers through his masculine curly hair since she was a teen. She makes a play by sexing up the clothes, draping them as low as she can and adding a pint of perfume and a heart to her bare shoulder… it doesn’t go un-noticed.

I’d always associated Daniels with talkies – especially 42nd Street – but was surprised to find that she’d been an early comedy partner for Harold Lloyd in a number of his post-war shorts. That experience certainly holds her in good stead here and she is a match for Swanson in looks and timing: a comedy cat-fight is guaranteed.

Beth doesn’t like the clothes… why should she be forced into revealing her body just for male gratification? She stays at home to listen to her favourite violinist Radinioff (Theodore Kosloff) leaving Robert with no one to go to the show with… Sally’s arrival with a missing part of the dress prompts him to extend the invitation.

Sally and Robert enjoy the show and back at her flat – blimey they moved quickly in 1920 – Robert find out that they share the same record collection and interests (dancing… kissing…). It’s a late night and by the time he gets home it’s nearly two o’clock and, waking Beth up, she quickly rumbles him and divorce is immediately on the cards.

Robert steps over the mark...
So far so rom-com and so it goes as the marital twists and turns involving the lead characters follow their course as Beth decides that maybe she should show off more of her assets whilst new wife Sally even gets tangled up with the surprisingly butch Radinioff as emotional loyalties ebb and flow… towards a conclusion I won’t give away.

Why Change Your Wife? – supercharged by Niki King’s music – felt fresh, smart and knowing… these are very modern concerns handled with a smooth economy. Bebe Daniels’ naturalistic and expressive timing threatens to steal the show but Gloria Swanson is that perfect silent powerhouse and even over-matched in stature and looks your eyes are inevitably drawn to her intensity and direct communication. Someone who “spoke” straight to the watcher and who never takes our attentiveness for granted.

As for Ms King, her jazz adds a lot of modern flavouring to what could be otherwise well-worn swing. Pitch perfect and powerful she was a one-woman Greek chorus carefully matching words to the specific meanings of music and mood. I shall certainly be tracking her down to Ronnie Scott's for more.

Why Change Your Wife? is available on import DVD from Amazon whilst you can find Niki King’s music there as well as digital retailers such as eMusic. Niki's website is to be found here.

More information about the Birds Eye View Film Festival and Sounds and Silents is to be found here: they’ve given me renewed faith in Mr DeMille!

Beth's change of style had all the boys interested...

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