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Image Entertainment presents
Old Wives for New (1918)

"Are you proposing to divorce me, the mother of your children?"
- Sophy Murdock (Sylvia Ashton)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: January 03, 2006

Stars: Elliott Dexter, Sylvia Ashton, Florence Vidor, Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams
Other Stars: Marcia Manon, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Theodore Roberts, Edythe Chapman
Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (thematic material, brief violence)
Run Time: 02h:33m:01s
Release Date: December 27, 2005
UPC: 014381589627
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B+A- A-

DVD Review

When you think about directors going for shock value, you usually think of characters like John Waters. But in his own time, Cecil B. DeMille, best known today for extravaganza spectacles, was every bit the shock artist. One of his earliest efforts is this 1918 film, Old Wives for New, which throws a glass of cold water into the face of societal expectations and mores, while still being fairly humorous.

Millionaire businessman Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) is unhappy with his lot in life; his once sylphlike wife Sophy has become a stout Bible-reading matron (Sylvia Ashton) who eats bonbons by the box and is generally useless. While on a hunting trip, he meets cute with designer Juliet Raeburn (Florence Vidor) and quickly falls in love. Murdock's business partner, Tom Berkeley (Theodore Roberts), is an inebriated philanderer who also has an interest in Juliet and other young ladies. But it's generally not a good idea to dally with other women when Juliet knows how to use a gun.

In 1918, the suggestion that one could dispense with a spouse through divorce was practically unthinkable, but here it's given as a reasonable solution for especially the wealthy to move on to a younger and more desirable model. While that's still not entirely smiled upon, the portrayal of Sophy as unkempt, sneering, haughty and disdainful certainly makes her unsympathetic to the extreme. As such, it's also a cautionary tale of what happens when a marriage is left on autopilot. But reputation is still a top concern: even while he lays dying, Berkeley demands that Murdock protect his reputation. Nonetheless, we do see the concern for what others think lessening, an attitude that would usher in the looser feelings of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties.

The performances are generally very good, with little of the overwrought character one often finds in films of this period. Dexter in particular does a fine job with his rather difficult role, managing to keep firmly on the audience's side, notwithstanding some unsympathetic traits. Ashton plays Sophy somewhat broadly, but it's a necessity of the theme that she be considered a bit given to excess. Florence Vidor is exceptionally fine as the liberated woman of the future, conveying a brassy edge over a sentimental and sensitive core. Character actor Gustav von Seyffertitz is particularly amusing as Blagden, the conniving secretary who engineers the breakup of Murdock and Sophy, with the intention of getting her (and her hefty divorce settlement) himself.

The movie is full of interesting little touches such as Blagden's deft hints to Sophy about Charles' infidelities. There's also a bit of modern media manipulation, as Murdock sends the press onto a fake lead to divert attention from Juliet as a killer. Berkeley's death scene is quite striking; after being shot he sits down heavily and attempts to light a cigarette, only then noticing the spread of blood on his white shirt, giving him one of the most striking death scenes in silent film. It's a bit jarring in the context of what had been a comedy of manners, but then that helps give the film some more of that shock value.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full-frame picture generally looks quite nice, with the moderate wear expected from a film over 85 years old. The opening titles seem to have shrunken a bit and they rattle around, but most of the time the picture is quite solid. The Whispering Chorus has some scenes tinted an excessive red, so they look like they're taking place in a blast furnace and detract from the tone of the picture. The keepcase cover indicates that the tinting scheme follows the original prints, but this seems a bit much.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Eric Beheim contributes a synthesized score (with sound effects) to Old Wives for New, and while it's generally competent, there are some scenes, such as the aftermath of Berkeley's shooting, that seem rather oblivious to the onscreen action. The Whispering Chorus features a score by the Mont Alto Orchestra, and it's a fine and gentle compilation score that works well with the picture. Recording quality is fine on both.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Production Notes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: Robert Birchard contributes some substantial background information in a packed booklet that accompanies the disc. But the principal extra is The Whispering Chorus (1918), the drama DeMille made just before Old Wives for New. More consciously artsy, this picture tracks the life of cashier John Tremble (Raymond Hatton), an ill-paid employee of the Clumley Construction Company. Irritated at his inability to provide for his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother Martha (Edythe Chapman), John listens to the whispering chorus of voices in his head and embezzles a hundred dollars. But soon crusading legislator Fighting George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter again) launches a graft investigation into Clumley, and John knows that his theft will be discovered. So he fakes his own death and adopts a new identity, while Jane, believing herself widowed, falls in love with Coggeswell. Things don't go quite right for John, however, as he ends up standing trial for the murder of himself.

The technique of double exposure is utilized to convey the voices of conscience and temptation affecting Tremble, and they generally come off pretty well, aided by some nicely decorated title cards. The acting here is more mannered, with both Hatton and Williams at times resorting to clichˇd textbook moves rather than conveying genuine emotion; at other times, however, Hatton in particular does a fine job, especially with his self-disgust early on. It's too bad he's saddled with an unconvincing fake beard during his best scenes. This film has a stern moralism that would go by the boards in Old Wives for New; I'd thus recommend watching this picture first to magnify the contrast and shock that Old Wives for New must have had for its audiences of the time. Both pictures are certainly well worth watching, however, and we see DeMille evolving his style in a very short time span.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

A pairing of two intriguing silents by Cecil B. DeMille, in generally fine condition.


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