Saturday, September 29, 2012

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Columbia Pictures

The talented Irene Dunne has for years flexed her muscles on screen in many dramatic roles and filled the air with beautiful vocals in many musicals, but for the first time she ventures into the territory of comedy in Theodora Goes Wild. A light hearted comedy with off-the-wall antics, this film was a new direction for Dunne that assists to expand her range and exposes a new joy in watching her perform. It’s a simple quality picture that pokes fun at social ethics and manifests that appearances are not as they always seem. The comedy would be a nice change of pace from the usual fare of romantic musicals that audiences usually saw Dunne performing in.

Theodora Goes Wild is a comedy of a woman in a small town that pens the latest risqué bestseller that sends her overly conservative town and family into a an uproar, and how her new sound freedom of expression needs to change the way people think about how conservatives act. Growing up in the straight laced small town with straight laced aunts that raised her Theodora (Irene Dunne) seems to be the most unsuspecting person there is, when in fact she secretly pens the latest novel of love and romance that has all the country’s attention, outraging the very circle she and her aunts socialize in. Having written under a pen name Theodora hopes to keep her inner self a secret, but through events is is provoked by the illustrator of her book, Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas). Michael’s interest in Theodora sparks a relationship that befuddles her aunts and exposes that Theodora is in fact author Caroline Adams, the very author whom her aunts despise.

With Theodora’s life effectively changed forever, she follows Michael to New York. There she discovers that the two are in fact in love with each other, but Michael too has a secret. He is married. However his marriage is only by name as he remains legally married in a now loveless marriage only to keep from creating a scandal, as his father is the planning to run for Governor. Theodora turns the tides on Michael and begins an escapade as Caroline Adams, effectively pushing Michael as he did her back home. Through the public escapade events take place that lead to Michael getting divorced (essentially allowing for them to have a relationship), and for Theodora being able to go home and celebrated as a celebrity. Though once a woman of scandal Theodora gains the acceptance of her aunts, and gets the last laugh on the overly conservative people of her town.

The film is a bit all over the place and the plot is a little difficult to understand in what it is trying to accomplish, topping it off with a finale that you might not comprehend how they got to, but in all Theodora Goes Wild is fun. Initially the picture seems simple (meaning that in a good way) as a story of an uptight community torn by what they want and how they think they should act, while Theodora keeps her true self hidden from her truth as an author. It turns to a romantic comedy where Theodora and Michael have a secret relationship, but when Theodora gets shunned the movie takes a strange direction, by which I mean you do not know quite where it is going. She then turns the tides and does to Michael what he did to here and frees him from his false self. That is all in good fun, but now Theodora is a hero for being a home wrecker, despite in reality it was a sham marriage? Not just that, but there is the closing joke made at the expense of the most conservative member of the town that shunned her; an uninspired joke at that. It is a weird film, but if you go with it the picture can be fun. Just try not to get too cross-eyed about the details of the zany plot and how it zig-zags.

Directed by Polish-born filmmaker Richard Boleslavski, this is far from the artistic vision of his 1935 adaptation of Les Misérables for 20th Century-Fox. Boleslavski has a bit of that European skill that seems to come from filmmakers outside of Hollywood, but unfortunately here he provides a normal comedy with little flare. The real spark of the feature steams for the talents of Dunne.

Irene Dunne was an established star far before Theodora Goes Wild, and she was not sure of herself approaching the idea of starring in a comedy, but by the end of the experience she was hooked and preferred to be in comedies over even her musicals. Her co-star in the film would have to be, in a way, her equal as they push each other to be free of their self-accepting prisons, and that man was Melvyn Douglas. As a veteran of Shakespearean stage and many years of acting on stage and screen Douglas provides a confidence in his actions as Michael, the one that pushes Theodora over the edge to truly accept herself. The trick for the character of Michael is that he is discovered to be just like Theodora in his own way and needs her to free himself. Douglas plays the role of Michael well, being able to change the character’s confidence from overly confident at first to timid once it is revealed he is in a shame marriage.

For Columbia Picture, still one of the three minor studios in Hollywood, Theodora Goes Wild was a decent success. Critics would enjoy Dunne’s new acting chops and the film would even receive nominations for two Academy Awards: best editing and Dunne for best actress. Looking back on the picture Theodora Goes Wild is a footnote to the transformation in Irene Dunne being used as an actress, now she is seen as one that can carry well in a comedy. The film is not a must by any means, even with critical accolades, though it remains a decent charming picture that some may enjoy.

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