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Shifting Gender Roles in Marriage

Author: briantaves from Washington, DC
30 October 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A female writer, Sheila, marries a rancher, Jim, when he promises not to interfere with her career. Her novel's success and its dramatization takes her to New York, where one of her new friends is Martin. The couple begin to drift apart, until Jim's sketches lead him to be hired for the engineering work of a construction company. She realizes "that behind his drawing lies the same force that is behind Sheila's writing—the driving urge to create ...." Reconciliation ensues when he recognizes that both have, in the words of studio publicity, given "expression to a fundamental instinct … that lies back of the big achievements both of men and women." She brings Martin home to visit as her husband is involved in constructing a large dam. When it breaks, Jim assumes she loves Martin and rescues him, but in fact Sheila's love for her husband remains undiminished. Finally, Jim's handicapped sister reconciles the couple. Marguerite De La Motte and John Bowers played the couple, while Milton Sills was the husband's potential urban rival.

The theme of the shifting role of the woman outside the home, resulting in changing relationships between husbands and wives, was considered as much the "star" as the cast. The approach to her is sympathetic, in the words of a publicist. "Sheila does not shout for rights from a soap-box on the corner. She merely gives expression to a fundamental instinct, the urge to the creative impulse that lies back of the big achievements both of men and women." Advertisements claimed the movie began a nation-wide discussion over the "new" woman and love, her privileges and the results of emancipation, and what results with the combination of "one primitive man and an ultra-modern woman ...." "The 'Jims' and 'Sheilas' of today can be found on any block in any street in any community. Their problem is more vital than that of the League of Nations or any other discussion that fills the front page columns of the daily press." This was a theme typical of Ince films of the 1920s, as I outline in my Ince biography.

While Bradley King had titled her scenario Jim, for the husband, the final title had to better reflect its theme, and a $250 prize for the words that captured the essence of the story best. Out of 5,641 entries, Harry Lee Wilber, a Fullerton, California theater owner, originated the title, What a Wife Learned.

John Griffith Wray directed in seven reels, and the location work was as arduous as Scars of Jealousy, taking the company to Nevada, San Francisco, and Arizona. In Arizona, three weeks were spent capturing the atmosphere of a big cattle ranch for the movie's opening scenes. In Yuma a temporary dam was constructed by Ince technicians, using material transported eleven miles by pack mules, and only the minimal necessities were available to the company. Despite the added expense, Ince believed the literal contrast between out-door and city life breathed life into the couple's story. What a Wife Learned cost $171,097, and after a year had grossed $235,432.

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