Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review – Too Wise Wives

June 25, 2008

Too Wise Wives – U.S., 1921

Compare these two wives. Wife #1 lives only for her husband and her home. When her husband’s smoking bothers her, she remains silent, preferring to suffer the terrible aroma in silence than to ask him to smoke the “nicer” cigars she gave him for Christmas. When her husband drops ashes on the ground, she rushes over immediately and cleans them up. During breakfast, when her husband picks a fatty piece of chicken, she overrules his selection, placing his piece back on the platter and giving him a healthier, whiter piece in its place. Wife #2 takes a different tact. When ashes fall on the ground, she encourages her man to drop more, saying the habit is good for preventing moths. During dinner, she tells her husband not to eat something if it doesn’t appeal to him; after all, she reasons, he can just eat more later. Now, which wife is better?

It’s an odd question, isn’t it? Some might even say the question itself is sexist, as it assumes that these actions say something about the women’s personalities and characters. And yet this is the implication of Too Wise Wives. The first woman is knows as Mrs. David Graham (her first name is never revealed), a recently married woman who, according to an intertitle, is the “martyred” kind of wife, which I guess implies that she has sacrificed her own happiness for her husband’s. If only the little twerp appreciated it. Mr. David Graham seesaws back a forth between admiring his wife for her dutiful behavior and becoming frustrated with what he perceives as her non-acceptance of his personality and her over-dependence on making him happy. For example, he gets frustrated when she serves him chicken for breakfast despite the fact that he told her it was his favorite food. He is equally ungrateful when she knits him slippers.

The second woman is Mrs. Sue Daly, the wife of the very wealthy Mr. John Daly. The intertitles inform us that she is selfish and a poor housekeeper. However, she is also clever and a successful wife. I guess what makes her successful is her habit of accepting whatever her husband does and never disagreeing or suggesting another alternative. For this, she is rewarded with wealth and the ability to shop for the latest fashions. In addition, she is the former girlfriend of Mr. David Graham, and as such, Mrs. Graham is constantly in competition with the memory of Mrs. Daly, a fact that causes Mrs. Graham to become jealous and erupt in tears over and over again. To make matters worse for poor Mrs. Graham, it appears that Mrs. Sue Daly has unresolved issues with Mr. Graham and may be scheming to try to rekindle their relationship.

So I come back to my original question: Which wife is better? The film clearly wants to present Mrs. Graham as the “better” wife, for her motives are “purer.” However, the film doesn’t allow the viewer to completely turn against Mrs. Daly. This is a woman who – like many other women of the time – made a financial decision when she got married. This does not make her a villain; it makes her practical. Is it unreasonable that she would still harbor feelings for the one she let go of? I don’t think so. What she can be blamed for is setting her plan in motion when common decency should have told her to do otherwise.

Too Wise Wives is predictable and overly emotional. I have to admit that I got tired of watching Claire Windsor’s Mrs. Graham respond to every difficulty by resorting to crying. I was also put off by the idea that everything could be fixed if one woman learned how to trust and the other learned to value her husband. Were the men not to blame at all for the states of their marriages? The film is clearly a product of its time. However, thanks to its brevity, the film never becomes boring. In addition, the film is well-acted, and the fact that it was directed by Lois Weber, one of the first female directors in Hollywood, gives it an importance that it might not otherwise have.
(on DVD)

2 and a half stars

*Too Wise Wives is on Disc 3 of Image-Entertainment’s Origins of Film.

No comments: