CB DeMille was nothing if not a conventional moralist. The Golden Chance, which has rightly been commented upon as a Cinderella story, is also Dickensian, with obvious parallels between the character of Mary Martin and Nancy, the abused and eventually murdered wife of thief Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist. Unlike Dickens, however, DeMille has no real interest in social reform. His Mary is not to be pitied for her situation in the same way we feel for Nancy. Mary chose to degrade herself with an unsuitable marriage below her station. DeMille, therefore, affords (likely unintentionally) a particularly twisted entertainment to the working-class women of the time—fantasies about being Cinderella at the ball and smug satisfaction at watching one of their betters pulled down off her pedestal and treated just as they would be treated by the ruling class.
Were DeMille willing to toss out his moral compass, he would have left no doubt about Mary’s instant availability to Roger upon the death of her husband. But for DeMille, the sanctity of marriage and knowing one’s place are far more important than individual happiness. There are many enforcers of the status quo: Mrs. Hillary’s maid, who gives Mary a dressing down for dressing up; Steve Denby, who sneers that Mary is no better than him just because she is a judge’s daughter; Mrs. Hillary, who uses Mary for financial gain and then makes sure Mary can’t do the same with Mrs. Hillary’s loaned jewelry. Despite the possibility of physical harm, Mary never seriously entertains leaving her husband and seems distraught when he is killed. There is no look of relief on her face that he is finally out of her life for good, and no final clinch with Roger. She probably realizes that Roger will never believe that Mrs. Hillary put her up to the deception, that is, if Mary would be so disloyal to her class again as to betray the Hillarys. And that will never happen. Mary will have a rough time as a single woman—and she deserves it, DeMille seems to imply.
In 1919, DeMille will have more fun with social convention in Don’t Change Your Husband (working again with the writer of The Golden Chance, Jeanie Macpherson). Still affirming the sanctity of marriage, DeMille allows his upper-class heroine, played by Gloria Swanson, to divorce her wealthy, but inattentive and slovenly husband to marry a man of her own social standing who turns out to be far more flawed than her husband. She, too, playacts at a costume ball at which her would-be lover is dressed as a king and she as a queen. Already in enviable circumstances, the characters must impersonate royalty to find suitable models for their aspirations and feelings. Her first husband reforms to win her back—affirming that he now takes marriage seriously and as something not to be taken for granted. No harm, no foul in this case. The larger transgression, it would appear, is betraying your own kind.The superior-quality melodramas that comprise the genre of Women's films have remained surprisingly true to form over the years. Take a look at the films of Douglas Sirk and his spiritual protege Todd Haynes and see their inspiration in these early Women's films from the dawn of movie-making.