Saturday, April 30, 2011

Theodora Goes Wild

Irene as Theodora Lynn

Release date 11.12.1936

"You know, what your aunts wired?"
"Those two delightful relicts? No. What?"
"Theodora's gone wild!"
"Tut, tut, I haven't started."

Welcome to Lynnfield, a small quiet New England town! But today Lynnfield is in an uproar about the first installment of a racy novel published in the Lynnfield Bugle. The protest is headed by Lynnfield‘s literary circle and especially by its important members Mary and Elsie Lynn (Elizabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade), off springs of the founders of Lynnfield and spinster aunts of Theodora (Irene). What the aunties, who educated Theodora, don't know is that her niece, proper Sunday school teacher and church organist, wrote this novel under the name de plume “Caroline Adams“. To avoid any further scandal Theodora goes to New York to instruct her publisher (Thurston Hall) to keep her identity a secret. In his office she meets artist Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas) who illustrated the cover of her book, and Michael, quite surprised by the prim looks of alleged wild Caroline Adams, starts challenging her “to let her back hair down“.

Michael (Melvyn Douglas) testing out "Caroline Adams"

Theodora's attempt to pick up the gauntlet and to show that she is indeed an experienced woman ends with an escape from Michael's apartment. Michael's interest is aroused and he follows Theodora to Lynnfield where he manages, with a lot of talking and threatening Theodora to reveal her secret, to get a job as gardener in the Lynn's house. Michael views it as his mission to rescue Theodora from narrow-minded Lynnfield and to help her to live her own life - as free and self-determined as his own. First steps seem to be to urge Theodora to go berry picking and fishing with him, and our two leads have quite a good time in the woods.

Theo and Michael

Soon the townspeople, Aunt Elsie, and Aunt Mary are suspicious of this flowering relationship and the consensus is to send this strange gardener away. An angry Theodora tells them off and admits that she loves Michael, and never will sent him away. Michael is not exactly glad about this announcement and the next day he is vanished, merely leaving a note for Theodora. But Theodora doesn't give up as easily as that; she follows Michael to New York where she learns that a. he is in love with her and b. he is married, trapped in an unhappy marriage, which he doesn‘t dare to break up because of the political ambitions of his father. Theodora vows to free him as he freed her, and if this needs a scandal to hasten the end of his marriage, that can be arranged. Dressed in a new wardrobe Theodora starts living Caroline Adams' life…Theodora goes wild!

Theodora Lynn aka Caroline Adams

I have a little weakness for this film because it was the first Dunne film I watched, and I only picked this one because I wanted to have a look at Dunne and found that title rather promising. Cannot say that this lady knocked me off my feet immediately, but obviously, I considered her interesting enough to check out some more of her films, and well, the rest is history. Some of Irene's comedies make me laugh over and over again, but that's not the case with “Theodora”. The kind of humor offered here, more rooted in the initial situation and clash of culture than in a witty script and the leads' repartee and chemistry, wears thin by and by with re-watching. Nevertheless, there is one scene that always works for me - when Theodora after her transformation turns up the first time at her publisher's office. This toying with layers, Irene Dunne playing Theodora, playing Caroline Adams - which is btw perfectly done by Irene, never loses its effect on me. Though this is not a comedy, which finds me screaming with laughter, it has nonetheless some pleasures ready for me.

Starting to free Michael...

I like the structure of "Thedora Goes Wild"; the contrast between country and city, which, interestingly enough, each are gender dominated. Lynnfield seems to be a town almost completely in female hands, and the city, New York, is run by males. No wonder that New York stands for freedom and the “real” life. That Michael, the embodiment of city life and its principles, has his own skeleton in the closet and is far away from leading the self-determined life he bragged about, brings to light that clichés are just that - clichés. Many things happen two times only with reversed signs, a typical comedy element, and almost all characters are not what they seem to be at first sight. Hillbilly Theodora throws overboard all her Sunday school attitude to get her man, before the altar, though; self-contented Michael loses all his composure and even the maiden aunts are good for a surprise.

Theodora and the "two delightful relicts" (Elizabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade)

“Theodora Goes Wild” was Irene's first genuine comedy, although there are comedy moments to be found in her earlier films. She claimed that she was very nervous during production and that could explain her - for Irene Dunne's standards - slightly over the top performance. Fortunately, this works in advantage for her, because Irene's character is not wild, just pretending to be, and that nervousness adds the needed air of insecurity to make this pretense believable. After all those heavier films it's plain and simple enjoyable to watch twirly Irene fluttering her eyelashes. However, this performance captured Irene her second Academy Award nomination; maybe her peers were simply surprised that Miss Dunne could do comedy. But one shouldn't forget that Irene Dunne had quite a lot of experience with the genre of musical comedy before she ever set her foot on a Hollywood lot.

Okay, let's do a comedy ...

The famous Dunne timing is not in full swing yet, probably due to the fact that this needs a counterpart, which is not given in the person of Melvyn Douglas. I have a special liking for Mr. Douglas - he worked with all my favorite actresses and I always liked what he did - but he and Irene are not the most convincing pairing. I believed her that she fell for him but his confession of love came totally out of the blue. They don't have the greatest dialogue at hand to start with, still some chemistry, some erotic sparkles could have enhanced even this one. Of course, on-screen chemistry is always a rare, lucky occurrence - and maybe I'm simply spoiled because I know of the leading men to come.

At last - a hymn!

And wouldn't you know, Irene sings again! The hymn “Rock Of Ages” illustrates Theodora's position in Lynnfield's community, and is at the same time a nice Irene Dunne tidbit, because singing in church was the way how teenage Irene earned her very first money. And there is Michael's and Theodora's “torch song” titled “Be Still My Heart”. We hear this song the first time in Michael's apartment where Michael imitates a seduction scene from Theodora's novel. Here “Be Still My Love” is used as soft music in the background; the next time it's played by Theodora to silence Michael, and in her interpretation the song sounds like a hymn with the lyrics of a love song, though. The third time “Be Still My Heart” is already a shared memory, thus the triple use of this song makes a nice background commentary to the development of our leads' love affair.

Lynnfield's literary circle (standing Spring Byington)

A real asset of this film are the wonderful performances of the character actors and actresses, especially the townspeople headed by Thomas Mitchell as newspaper man, Spring Byington as the gossip and Elizabeth Risdon as Aunt Mary. Their performances and the fact that director Richard Boleslawski had a knack for crowd scenes lay on a couple of funny moments.

This movie is not one of the most brilliant stars glittering at the comedy heaven, but it's a thoroughly likeable picture - especially if you watch it for the first or second time. As for Irene, “Theodora Goes Wild” is a "must see" because it marks her first comedy and venture into a genre that turned out to be from great importance for her career.

tut, tut, I'm finished!