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Theodora Goes Wild (1936) Richard Bolesawski

January 21, 2013

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‘Theodora Goes Wild’ was chosen for the BFI’s current Screwball season and this made me seek it out, on a cheap Region 1 boxset, to see if it deserved to be listed alongside ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Easy Living’ let alone ‘Bringing Up Baby’.

It stars Irene Dunne as a respectable woman living out her days with her maiden aunts in a sleepy New England town named after her family. She sings in church, helps the locals with their problems and every few months goes to the big city to visit her reprobate Uncle and see how the family capital is doing. She’s in her late thirties, Dunne was 38 when the movie was released, and seems acutely aware of how many aspects of life have passed her by. So aware of them all in fact that she has written a racy novel ‘The Sinner’ under an assumed name which is the nations best selling book and is causing a storm by being serialised in the local paper. The local literary society are up in arms, listening with baited breath to salacious extracts while campaigning against the publication.

Dunne’s trip to New York to stop the serialisation brings her into contact with Melvin Douglas’ painter, responsible for the book’s lurid jacket and finds her out on the town for a night unwilling to be pigeonholed as the naive small town woman she really is. A drunken night brings her back to Douglas’ bachelor pad before it all gets a little too real for her and she runs back to the safety of the countryside. Douglas follows her, pretending to be a vagrant and threatening to reveal her secret unless Dunne takes him on as a gardner. Over her aunt’s objections she does so and the pair fall in love. Only for Douglas to flee back to New York when she proclaims her love. It transpires that he is the son of the Lieutenant Governor of New York, and despite his philandering is stuck in a loveless marriage he can’t leave while his father is in office. After he breaks Dunne free of her family ties and burdens of respectability it now falls on her to do the same for Douglas, tarnishing her own name further as she is named in his divorce proceedings. Eventually they find themselves back in the countryside and meet on equal terms free to be together.

I liked the film a lot and Dunne brought a lot of depth to her role. She is attractive and intelligent and witty but also quite clearly in her late thirties in an era and setting where being single at that age meant keeping the company of old women and never experiencing a whole range of enjoyable things. When Douglas offers her the chance of love, even when it is only Douglas offering her the chance of a drunken night in New York there is a real eagerness to finally experience life.

The age of romantic leads in the 30s and 40s is quite interesting to me. The vast majority of fondly remembered 1930s and 1940s romantic comedies feature lead actresses who were themselves in their 30s and 40s. This perhaps explains the prevalence of comedies of divorce and remarriage that I referred to in my last post. Here you really get an idea of just how stifling it was to be a single respectable adult woman. You also see the double standard of Douglas, as well as Dunne’s uncle, carrying on a string of quite obviously sexual relationships while single or even married but estranged. The movie doesn’t really comment on this explicitly but it is there in Dunne’s performance and also in the overall attack on respectability

The idea of someone in quiet obscurity gaining fame and fortune for writing a sexy novel is obviously just as relevant today and the film has as much fun with the idea as it could under the restrictive code. The desire of every straight laced old lady to hear the juiciest bits is obvious and I really liked the character of the local publisher who knows what it will do for his sales and is ready to call all the old dears on their salacious streaks.

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However the code is in place and nobody can quite tackle openly just what the book contains or even make jokes about how the straight laced Dunne got her ideas. I guess the movie just says that those thoughts are probably there in everybody forced into that straightjacket of respectable femininity. They certainly seem to be there in everyone in her town.

The smalltown versus big city aspect of the movie is also enjoyable. It is superficially a theme of many comedies of the period, particularly Capra’s but also in ‘Nothing Sacred’ or ‘Hail the Conquering Hero’. But in a lot of those movies it seems a half hearted exercise, sophisticated city dwellers paying lip service to the myth of the heartland to satisfy audiences and in Capra’s movies at least the denizens of the small town seem scary and claustrophobic at the very moments their virtues are being sung. Here New York isn’t shown to be the answer but it is the very ‘goodness’ of the smalltown that is the problem and while Dunne herself comes across as wise and virtuous it is clearly shown to be because of who she is rather than where she lives. It quietly, largely by showing a genuinely good and smart person strangled by decency, makes a case for sexual excitement and the need to cut loose despite the constraints of the code.

Part of me really liked the fact the movie showed that Douglas, for all his playboy lifestyle and speeches about Dunne’s need for freedom, was just as trapped by his family. Just as unable to really seek happiness while keeping them onboard. The saddest character was probably not Dunne’s maiden aunts or busy body neighbours but Douglas’ wife, like him trapped in a loveless marriage she is unable to leave but lacking his ability to swan off to the countryside and romance whoever she feels like. Despite the symmetry and the genuine feeling that it was showing that things could be just as bad for guys this second half does not work quite as well as the first act. It keeps the leads apart at a time when you want them to be happy and to sizzle and it is a little too obvious in its mirroring of the themes. The very last act when Dunne returns home to a heroes welcome, gets to see her family loves her no matter what and brings a poetic end to the interfering of her neighbours (particularly the always excellent Spring Byington, usually the kindly older confidante in movies like ‘the Devil and Miss Jones’ but here an oppressive gossip) is far better than the 30 minutes that immediately preceded it.

All in all a very enjoyable movie that doesn’t even really feel like screwball, as much as i love the genre it feels warmer and deeper than that. I’ve not mentioned him much but Douglas does good work bringing out the best in a female lead and then letting her shine, just like he does with Garbo in ‘Ninotchka’ or Deitrich in ‘Angel’. He’s charming and just that little bit cocky and his romantic scenes with Dunne genuinely seem like people getting to know each other and realising they might have a chance at happiness.

I dont know a lot about director Bolesawski, he died young a year after this movie was made and his best known movie was an early, non musical, version of Les Miserables starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton. Here he handles the movies different tones very well and keeps things moving extremely quickly. He seems to bring out a lot in Dunne who sparkles throughout while still showing a lot of depth.

It’s a hard movie to find but if you like the period one well worth seeking out.

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