Thursday, August 2, 2012

Worth Watching: Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Title: Theodora Goes Wild
Director: Richard Boleslawski
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) lives with her two respectable aunts in the small New England town of Lynnfield where she plays the organ at church and teaches Sunday school. No one would suspect that she writes under the pseudonym of Caroline Adams, the author of a racy best-selling novel that causes an uproar in Lynnfield when the town newspaper prints installments of it.

Irene Dunne as Theodora Lynn hiding behind a book

Theodora feels conflicted about having to hide her literary career. During a visit to her publisher in New York City, she considers giving up on writing and sticking only to her quiet life in Lynnfield. But then she runs into Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the illustrator of her book's cover. He finds out where she lives, follows her home, and tries to badger her into revealing herself and living a freer, more open life. As it turns out, Michael is a hypocrite about living openly and honestly, and in the second half of the movie Theodora turns the tables on him, making him live up to his own advice.

Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild

The romance didn't do much for me. Michael was mostly obnoxious, blackmailing Theodora and acting on wrong-headed assumptions; the shtick where he whistles and whistles and keeps Theodora and her aunts awake also went on for too long. I disliked him for much the same reason that I found Clark Gable's character unattractive in It Happened One Night - he bullies, he blusters, he's too puffed up. You don't know what his intentions are, especially when you find out what he's hiding. Does he follow Theodora home to have some fun at her expense? Does he want to set a kindred spirit free? (Yes to both?)

I don't understand why Theodora falls in love with him, except because the plot told her to. I do like that she doesn't let him get too full of himself. For instance at one point when they're picking blackberries he lies back in lordly fashion and tells her to drop some berries into his mouth, to which she replies, "Well who's going to chew them for you?"

This is really Irene Dunne's show, and she's the main reason I like Theodora Goes Wild. She's convincing both as a mousy small-town girl and as a society lady who seems to flout all the rules. Neither role reflects the full truth about Theodora; at heart she's a good-natured person with ordinary passions, but nobody wants to believe it. As long as it doesn't touch them people love a good scandal, the more outrageous the better.

Irene Dunne as Theodora Lynn with Melyn Douglas as Michael

With a mix of genuineness and dishonesty, and with lots of humor, Theodora navigates the separate social spheres of Lynnfield and New York City and thumbs her nose at the narrow-minded conventions found in both places. She doesn't let fame turn her head. She stays grounded and has fun, putting on expensive furs and some unusual hats that resemble modern art sculptures and that only Irene Dunne could get away with wearing without looking ridiculous.

There are some good supporting characters in this film: Theodora's stern aunts (played by Elisabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade), who may be more loving than they first appear; her sly adorable uncle (Robert Greig); and Lynnfield's moral arbiter and head gossip, Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), who regards the very things she disapproves of with wide-eyed relish. But ultimately it's Dunne carrying the film, and she does well with the material and is a pleasure to watch.

*All images link back to their sources (DVDtalk and Wikimedia).