The suspicions of Mrs. David Graham (Claire Windsor) are awakened by a perfumed letter addressed to her husband from his old flame in Too-Wise Wives (1921), a small gem of a film by the prolific American filmmaker Lois Weber (the Internet Movie Database lists over one hundred titles to her credit as a director, most of them made between 1912 and 1921). I wrote in my last post that not all female directors’ work can be read in terms of feminist politics, but much of Weber’s work can; an unabashedly political filmmaker, she consistently tackled hot-button social issues such as abortion, birth control, censorship and poverty, and her views were complex and eclectic enough that the films are consistently surprising. (Her fascinating Where Are My Children?, made in 1916 [!] handles various sides of the abortion debate so gracefully and sensitively that it becomes difficult even to know, finally, what it’s trying to say about it, and I mean that as a compliment.)
Too-Wise Wives isn’t as complex or richly provocative as Weber’s best films, and its final act gets bogged down first by some third-rate melodramatic business with that love letter, then by a pair of sentimental reconciliation scenes. But it’s worth it to see Weber take on that indelible cultural type, The Woman Who Nags. (For a later variation on this theme, see Dorothy Parker’s indelible short story “The Lovely Leave.”) Mrs. Graham, who the intertitles inform us loves her husband but who has made the mistake of martyring herself to her domestic duties, very nearly frets and fusses her husband into the arms of another woman. The film initially leads us to believe that it will be a sly cautionary tale about the dangers of nagging, and maybe it is that, to some extent; but it’s the vapid, designing Mrs. Daly who’s the closest thing the film has to a villain (we can tell we’re supposed to hate her because while fawning over a male politician she demonstrates an embarrassing ignorance of politics), and in the end Mrs. Graham triumphs (though her husband’s rendezvous is thwarted more by a series of fortunate coincidences than by anything she makes happen herself). In the end, the nagging woman hasn’t so much reformed as her husband has learned to appreciate her nagging as a sign of her love for him. Come to think of it, Too-Wise Wives is something of a message movie for husbands (men, don’t throw over your boring old wife for a sexier model!) disguised as a women’s picture. But it’s worth checking out for its very funny early scenes with the Grahams at home, as she furrows her brow whenever his pipe ashes fall onto the carpet and insists on serving his favorite dish, fried chicken, every morning for breakfast.
By the way, the period costumes and sets in this film are worth seeing in themselves. What are the odds I can have a 1920s garden like the one at the Daly estate, complete with reflecting pool, delivered to my house?