[From Luc Moullet’s monograph Cecil B. DeMille: The Emperor of Mauve (2012, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

Why Change Your Wife? (1919)

DeMille’s intertitles contain comments on the action shown and, of course, the words uttered by the characters.

These comments are often characterized by their length and pompousness.

Look at the final title card of Why Change Your Wife: “And now you know what every husband knows: that a man would rather have his wife for his sweetheart than any other woman; but Ladies: if you would be your husband’s sweetheart, you simply MUST learn when to forget that you’re his wife.” Or the introduction to The Road to Yesterday: “Everyone in this audience has felt an unaccountable Fear, either of the Dark or the Unseen, of great Height or great Depth. Everyone has felt an instantaneous Dislike for some individual: an instantaneous Love for another; a great Trust of some, a great Fear of others. How do you account for this? Is the cause hidden in the Present, the Future or the Past?” Another gem: “Just as the tempest sweeps everything before it, the madness of a moment conquers everything, even Love” And another: “When morning finally arrives, ruthless virtues prove stronger than Love, and ruin a home.” This pompous quality can sometimes be found in the visuals: at the beginning of Male and Female, a high-society comedy set indoors, there is a shot of the clouds, a shot of the sea, another of the Grand Canyon, whereas everything is taking place is London. This grandiloquence often has to do with the involvement of Cecil’s brother, William, and screenwriter MacPherson. But Cecil obvious accepted it, even if clashes with the simplicity of the dialogues.

The grandiloquence is all the more questionable since an intertitle doesn’t last forever and since we don’t always have the time to understand such convoluted formulations.

We must bear in mind that DeMille was a Bostonian, a proud product of an ambitious theatre scene, and he wanted this ambition to be seen in his films. Like many of the silent cinema greats, Griffith and Gance in particular, DeMille was a failed playwright. In his work, one can sense a contradiction between an elite, highbrow, tasteful side (C.B. DeMille’s finest exegete, Sumiko Higashi, uses the word genteel) and a desire for a popular cinema. The two are hard to reconcile, but our filmmaker manages it quite well.

Besides, it should be noted that there are often pretentious intertitles in Griffith’s or Stroheim’s films: some title cards of Greed make you laugh.

But the intertitles are sometimes brilliant. Listen to this magic phrase found in the play The Road to Yesterday in 1906, and reused in the film of the same name twenty years later, although it was already used rather gratuitously in Male and Female in 1919: “Through lives and lives, through hells and hells, till the will that made has unmade, thou shalt pay, and pay, and pay.” This phrase has then obsessed DeMille for years.

The intertitles can sometimes have a great comic value or reveal a clever subtility. A kid tosses a banana peel on which the hero of Why Change Your Wife slips and soon becomes bedridden. And just before that, there is this marvellous title card: “If this were fiction, the train would be wrecked or they would have a terrible automobile accident on leaving the station. But in real life, if it isn’t a woman, it’s generally a brick or a banana peel that changes a man’s destiny.”

A great fan of shipwrecks and car accidents, DeMille, while making fun of himself, manages to make us believe for a moment that what he shows is life, and not fiction…

The dialogue sometimes contains interesting refrains. The hero of the Western Union Pacific doesn’t have the reactions of a cowboy at all. He always says “maybe”. The same film contains some fine lyrical lines. A passenger in a train on fire remarks, “If we’re gonna burn after we’re dead, let’s get some practice.”

And the writing doesn’t leave out private jokes. The alcohol that Bebe Daniels offers to Thomas Meighan (Why Change Your Wife) comes out of a fine bottle called “Forbidden Fruit”, the title of the film C.B. will make six months later. The broken record in the silent version of The Ten Commandments carries the label CB 465. The ship-owner of Reap the Wild Wind is called Devereaux, as was the special effects supervisor employed by Cecil Blount DeMille. One of the troopers in The Crusades answers to the name ‘Blount’. The hero of The Godless Girl is named Hathaway, like C.B.’s assistant. Wassell’s competitor is called Wayne, like the actor of the previous film. The train in Union Pacific has a name: Old MacPherson, the name of the screenwriter who was no longer working with him, but whom he salutes in passing. The fake vitriol attack (with eyewash) in Why Change Your Wife is based on an incident between two of C.B.’s mistresses, Julia Faye and Jeanie… MacPherson. There are surely many other wordplays that I haven’t been able to spot. There are perhaps more private jokes in DeMille’s films than in Godard’s.