“It’s all perfectly clear to me — that adorable young thing is an unholy terror on wheels…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Beginning with Leathernecking, her feature film debut in 1930, actress Irene Dunne staked out a lengthy career in motion pictures starting out as the epitome of the noble, long-suffering heroine in “four-hanky” films such as Back Street, Magnificent Obsession and The Age of Innocence. She also brought with her extensive experience in musical theater. Her initial foray into movies resulted, as it were, from her successful turn as Magnolia Hawks in the 1929 touring production of Show Boat (a role she later reprised in a 1936 film adaptation, considered by many to be the most faithful) — she was spotted by a Hollywood talent scout during her Chicago stop with the show — and her fine voice was marvelously utilized in vehicles such as Stingaree, Sweet Adeline and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Roberta in which Dunne croons the now-standard “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
In 1936, Dunne was ready to tackle her first feature film comedy, something that made her apprehensive at the time and, even though she proved in movies such as The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife (both directed by Leo McCarey), that she was a first-rate screen comedienne, she acquiesced later that “comedy is more difficult than drama,” adding: “An actress who can do comedy can do drama, but the vice versa isn’t necessarily true. Big emotional scenes are much easier to play than comedy. An onion can bring tears to your eyes, but what vegetable can make you laugh?” At the risk of being facetious and suggesting “zucchini” (it just sounds funny), none of this really matters in the long run…because 75 years ago on this date, Dunne and co-star Melvyn Douglas brought forth tears of laughter in a screwball comedy classic that seamlessly blends satire with romance: Theodora Goes Wild.
Lynnfield, Conn., brags that it’s “The Biggest Little Town in Connecticut” — but if you’ve ever spent time living in such a burg, you know that “everyone knows when the neighbors cough,” to quote a lyric from a song by the female country music duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. Jed Waterbury, editor of The Lynnfield Bugle, has arranged for his paper to serialize the risqué (and best-selling) novel The Sinner, penned by mysterious authoress Caroline Adams and the local contingent of bluenoses — collectively known as the Lynnfield Literary Circle — is predictably up in arms at this development. Spinster sisters Mary (Elisabeth Risdon) and Elsie Lynn (Margaret McWade) marshal forces with town gossip Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington) to force Waterbury into ceasing publication; Perry even going so far as sending the book’s publisher, Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall), a scathing telegram (“Fewer and stronger words, I always say”). Rebecca also asks Mary and Elsie’s niece, Theodora Lynn (Dunne), to take some cookies to Rebecca’s daughter Adelaide (Rosalind Keith) when Theo announces her intention to pay her Uncle John (Robert Greig) a visit in New York City.
The trip to the Big Apple proves revelatory in two ways: first, Adelaide is staying with “wicked” Uncle John because her husband left her (her mother does not know she’s married) and she’s great with child. Second, the novelist known as “Caroline Adams” is none other than Theodora herself! She’s quite upset that Stevenson sold the serialized rights of her latest book to Waterbury and, worried that the town will discover the truth, she declares that her writing days are over. Stevenson tries to assuage her fears about her secret getting out, but the two are interrupted by the arrival of his wife Ethel (Nana Bryant) and Michael Grant (Douglas), the illustrator of “Caroline’s” novel. Ethel and Michael pressure Arthur into convincing Theo to spend the evening with them and after dinner, drinks (Theo orders straight whiskey when Michael challenges her strait-laced demeanor) and dancing, both Ethel and Theo end up spiffed. Stevenson must escort his wife home so he reluctantly entrusts Michael with the responsibility of putting Theo back on the train to Lynnfield. Instead, Theo is brought back to Michael’s Park Avenue apartment and when he tries to put the moves on her, she flees in terror.
Back home in the comfort food-environs of Lynnfield, Theo gets a surprise when Michael turns up unannounced and lands a position as her aunts’ unconventional gardener (threatening to blackmail her with Mary and Elsie by his presence). Michael’s involvement with and courtship of Theodora starts the town’s tongues wagging but after spending a good deal of time with him, Theo realizes she’s in love. She screws up the courage to reveal this to the Literary Circle (who are naturally scandalized by this news) but when she confesses her feelings to her would-be boyfriend he is far from enthused. As a matter of fact, he takes the first bus out of that biggest little town the next morning. Theodora chases after him, heading back to New York, where she learns that in his efforts to get her to shake off the stifling conformity that is small-town Lynnfield he has forgotten to “heal thyself.” Michael, though equally enamored of our heroine, is trapped in a loveless marriage with wife Agnes (Leona Maricle) — they are estranged but keep up the pretense in order to avoid creating a scandal that could torpedo his father’s political career (Pop, played by Henry Kolker, is New York’s lieutenant governor).
Theodora believes that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: revealing that she is the Caroline Adams, she plays the role of the scandalized novelist and hints to an anxious press corps that she is more than just a houseguest in Michael’s apartment. Not only is Lynnfield’s populace traumatized by this turn of events, but Michael’s family is equally stunned, particularly when it is intimated that Theo will be named co-respondent in divorce proceedings involving Arthur and Ethel Stevenson. Things comes to a boil when Theodora crashes the Governor’s Ball and Michael, upset by her presence, orders her to go back home and stop making a fool of herself. (Embracing Michael one last time, the press gets a juicy photo of Theodora in the bargain, prompting wife Agnes to announce she wants a divorce.) Returning to Lynnfield, Theo is surprised to see that instead of being ostracized she is now welcomed by all as a celebrity — until she steps off the train cradling a newborn infant in her arms. The baby, of course, belongs to Adelaide Perry (who sneaks off the train with her husband in tow) but it puts a hilarious scare into the now-divorced Michael until Theo reveals the truth.
To my shame, I don’t always tout the charms of Irene Dunne as loudly as I do other film actresses and Theodora Goes Wild is a glaring example of my slackitude. Dunne is positively captivating as the small-town caterpillar who transforms into a gorgeous butterfly; every moment she’s onscreen it’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. Among the highlights of Theodora is her delightful drunk scene (rhumbaing with co-star Douglas) that’s a precursor to a similar sequence in the later Truth, and the moment she finally “goes wild,” sporting an eye-popping wardrobe (the outfit she has on when she sits at the piano in Douglas’ apartment is breathtaking) and giving the news hounds an earful about her life story while previewing her salacious “new book.” My favorite moment from Dunne is an admittedly quiet one when she’s visiting Uncle John and young mother-to-be Adelaide, apologizing for the state of the baked goods she brought from Adelaide’s mother: “Oh…by the way, your mother made some cookies for me…but I met a hungry man and he ate them all up.”
I’m on the record at my home base of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear as admitting that I’m not particularly a fan of Melvyn Douglas’ work (though it’s mostly his early films; he had a callowness that he later outgrew, becoming a first-rate character thesp in films such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Hud and The Candidate); in Theodora, however, he’s not too intolerable, apart from several scenes when he annoys everyone within earshot (both on and off-screen) with his incessant whistling. He gets in a funny line now and then; a real beaut is when he’s settling in to his new quarters in the Lynn family’s tool shed and, annoyed by the presence of Mary and Elsie, puns “Say, this place is crawling with aunts.” My reservations about Douglas aside, I think he acquits himself nicely in this one — his romance with Dunne is endearingly sweet and very believable, an attribute not always present in a majority of screwball comedies.
The believability of the romance against the background of spirited farce is the work of scenarist Sidney Buchman, who adapted Mary McCarthy’s original story and showcased an affinity for small-town life in such films as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Talk of the Town. (The notion of individuals trying to escape being smothered by conformity also is touched upon in Buchman’s screenplay for 1938’s Holiday.) Author Hal Erickson has argued that Theodora doesn’t quite play as funny as it once did “only because most of its satirical targets (notably the shocked spinster aunts) have ceased to exist.” I take exception to that: I grew up in a town very similar to the one in the film and recognized all of its archetypes, particularly the uptight prude (a great performance from December Bride's Spring Byington) who’s got a few skeletons in a closet of her own. (It’s like how the “preacher’s daughter” always turned out to be the wildest in your group of high school friends.) Complimenting Buchman’s screenplay is the polished direction of Polish émigré Richard Boleslawski, who had a brief Hollywood career helming notable films such as Rasputin and the Empress, Les Miserables and Three Godfathers until his life was cut short at the age of 48 in 1937. Theodora Goes Wild remains one of his best pictures; he has a splendid way of punctuating the comedy with cinematic devices such as intercutting close-ups of Lynnfield’s old biddies discussing the scandal that is Theodora with shots of cats licking their chops. The laugh-out-loud scene in Theodora for me is when the town’s resident bluenoses are discussing Theodora’s return to Lynnfield, decreeing that the townsfolk won’t “step foot in that depot” and then we fade in to a SRO crowd at the station, complete with signs (“Caroline Adams — We Welcome You” and “Welcome Theodora”) and a brass band.
The performances of Dunne and Douglas are complimented by a splendid array of character actors at a time in films when supporting players were the “glue” of any successful picture. Thomas Mitchell is super as the sarcastic editor Waterbury (I love when he tells off Byington in the depot scene that he’s responsible for the brass band: “Now you get a lawyer and try to stop me from spending my own money any way I like!”), Thurston Hall is solid as Dunne’s slightly shady publisher, and Robert Greig as the “black sheep” of the respectable Lynn family, Uncle John. I've already mentioned that Byington is a delight (her fainting reaction to the news that she’s a grandma is hilarious) but I really enjoyed the performances of veterans Elizabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade as Aunts Mary and Elsie. Prim, proper and ever-so-cautious about besmirching the family name, they eventually begin to thaw (and you can literally see this happening as they ride through Lynnfield with Theodora and the baby, with Elsie snapping "You'd think they'd never seen a baby before" and Mary returning “So help me Hannah…this town gets more narrow-minded everyday…”) because while nobody invites a “scandal,” families close ranks and stick together when the chips are down.
With the success of Theodora Goes Wild, Irene Dunne embarked on a new career in motion picture comedy (though she did continue in dramatic roles as well), and her utterly beguiling performance in Theodora nabbed her an Academy Award nomination as best actress, her second following her heralded turn in 1931’s Cimarron. Dunne is considered by many to be the best actress never to win an Oscar. She’d follow her Theodora accolades with three additional nominations for The Awful Truth (1937 — the film for which she should have won), Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948). Theodora also picked up a best film editing nomination for Otto Meyer, who also was shut out from ever receiving an Academy trophy, receiving a second nomination for Talk of the Town. Meyer also worked on three additional pictures with Dunne — Penny Serenade, Together Again and Over 21.) Biographer Wes D. Gehring, author of Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, once remarked in a USA Today article: “I would be especially happy to join her in the screwball world of Theodora Goes Wild…and never come back…” That’s as fine a diamond anniversary tribute to a superlative example of the screwball comedy genre as could ever be, and I welcome readers to follow suit.