THEODORA GOES WILD gave Irene Dunne her first starring role in a comedy, and drew the 37-year-old actress an Oscar nomination (her second of five), ironically for a role she didn’t want in a genre she felt no affinity towards. Starting here, she proved she excelled at it, though later in life she told an interviewer “it was very easy for me, very natural. It was no effort for me to do comedy at all. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t so appreciative of it.” Dunne’s disdain was our gain, as evidenced by The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Joy of Living, Life With Father, and this screwball charmer from 1936. *
“Say, this place is crawling with aunts.”
The aunts of that one-liner are of the spinster variety, small town Connecticut division, where the fluttering gossip brigade twist their snoots into a hissyfit when it’s revealed that ‘Theodora Lynn’ (Dunne) their mistakenly mousey church organist, has secretly written a racy novel, which everyone in town has secretly devoured. Though her publisher (Thurston Hall, very good) knows scandalous scribe ‘Caroline Adams’ real identity, no-one else does, until ‘Michael Grant’ (Melvyn Douglas), illustrator (and self-styled rake–he thinks) eavesdrops. He visits ‘Lynnfield’ to pester her into his clutches, but agrees to disguise his own identity to keep hers hidden from the harpies. Tables turn.
Directed by Russo-Polish émigré Richard Boleslawski, Sidney Buchman’s screenplay, off a story by Mary McCarthy, pinches social and sexual hypocrisy, whether it sniffs from sticks and sophisticates, and manages a who’s-pulling-who’s-leg romance in the bargain. Like how it spun Dunne into a new groove of comedy, it also cut a new line for Douglas, 34, as a swain in pictures like Ninotchka. People seem divided over whether his character in this movie is more annoying than endearing: from this end of the aisle we prefer Douglas’s wonderful late-career work starting in the early 60’s (his own, too). There is no argument about the leading lady, as Dunne’s innate poise and confidence, along with perfect timing, make Theodora, demure or wild someone it would be a treat to meet. She also gets some hilariously over-the-top costumes to sashay in, designed by Bernard Newman, who conceived attire for such worthies as Top Hat, Swing Time, Tales of Manhattan and Humoresque.
“It’s all perfectly clear to me. That adorable young thing is an unholy terror on wheels. There’s nothing in the world more deadly than innocence on the manhunt!”
Securing 35th place in ’36, the grosses tallied $3,800,000. Along with the leading lady (who also graced Show Boat that year), the Film Editing (by Otto Meyer) was Oscar-nominated. The method to madness that Theodora went wild with laid a trail for screwball antics to follow. The gag runs a just-right 94 minutes, with Thomas Mitchell, Elisabeth Wisdon, Margaret McWade, Thurston Hall, Spring Byington, Rosalind Keith, Nana Bryant, Leona Maricle, Robert Greig, Henry Kolker and Billy Benedict. ‘Corky’ is ‘Jake the Dog’.
* Dunne, interviewed 42 years later by James Harvey: “That film…was the biggest surprise of my life. I still don’t see how it was so successful….It seemed to me very… well, unsophisticated….Well, I’d never done a comedy before. I’d done serious parts like Back Street — and here was this little flipperty small-town dummy, and I just didn’t want to play her at all…You know, none of us wanted to do that picture. The director was being penalized for something. I was threatened with suspension if I didn’t do it, so my nose was out of the joint. We all got together like a bunch of rejects. But then the front office loved everything so much that it became a happy film. We had no problems. I enjoyed working with Melvyn Douglas, and everything rolled along beautifully….I guess the story… was kind of cute. I know lots of friends of mine like it better than almost anything I ever made. Because they say, now that’s the real you… Well, I don´t know what that means.”
Harvey on her performance: “Dunne seems intoxicated, magical, high-flying. Dunne does not just see the joke – she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it. Nobody does this so completely or to quite the same degree.”
Her Oscar nomination for Theodora lost to Luise Rainier (meh) for The Great Ziegfield (snore). Not enough, Rainier (and makeup) won again the following year, with Rainier’s stoic Chinese peasant of The Good Earth defeating Dunne’s laugh-maker The Awful Truth.
Trying to get Theodora‘s script past bluenoses allowed Code-watcher Joseph I. Breen to wag a pinkie at Columbia czar Harry Cohn, moaning that the heroine made “evil made to appear attractive” and breaks up two marriages, while “decent” and “church-going” characters are “made to appear ridiculous, stupid and silly” next to city denizens, who “indulge in extra-marital activities, drunkenness and debauchery, [and] are made to appear attractive.” He who is without sin…is pretty boring.