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Theodora Goes Wild (1936) is one of the lesser-known screwball comedies, a fresh, funny and original one that has been unjustly overlooked. It was also pivotal to the careers of its stars, Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas, and to the screwball genre itself. In his book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, James Harvey calls Theodora Goes Wild "the precursor and paradigm of almost every important romantic comedy to follow it," and Sidney Buchman's script "one of the most brilliantly constructed in the screwball cycle."
Irene Dunne plays Theodora, a church organist in a small and stuffy Connecticut town, who secretly writes a racy best-selling novel. In New York for a meeting with her publisher, she gets involved with the illustrator of her book, played by Melvyn Douglas. Theodora then proceeds to scandalize hometown gossips, Douglas' politically prominent family, and even sophisticated New Yorkers, in her pursuit of true love.
Dunne had begun her career in musical theater, starring as Magnolia in the touring company of Show Boat in 1929. With the advent of sound films, she was among the many theater actors signed to a film contract. But by the time she arrived in Hollywood in 1930, the craze for musicals was over, so she began making a string of romantic melodramas, including Back Street (1932), and the Western epic Cimarron (1931), which earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. A few years later, musicals made a comeback, and she starred in several, including Roberta (1935), and the film version of Show Boat (1936). Just before making the latter film, Dunne, dissatisfied with her RKO contract, decided to go freelance and signed a three-picture deal with Columbia. The studio chose Theodora Goes Wild as her first film, to Dunne's dismay. "I'd never done a comedy before," she later recalled. "I'd done serious parts like Back Street, and there was this little flipperty small town dummy, and I just didn't like her at all." Dunne took off for a two-month European vacation, hoping the studio would come up with something else when she returned. But by 1936, the screwball craze was in full swing, and all the dramatic stars, from Stanwyck to Davis to Crawford, were having a go at it. Columbia executives were adamant: either play Theodora, or go on suspension. Dunne acquiesced.
The director Columbia had chosen for Theodora Goes Wild was just as unlikely as its star. Polish director Richard Boleslawski was a product of Konstantin Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater and New York's experimental Laboratory Theater. In Hollywood since 1930, he had been directing prestige epics like Rasputin and the Empress (1932) and Les Miserables (1935). Dunne felt that Boleslawski had no flair for comedy, although she got along well with him, and enjoyed making the film. And according to co-star Melvyn Douglas, the director had his own wild side. Dunne was supposed to make an entrance appearing excited, but Boleslawski wasn't satisfied with her reactions. So he had a crew member fire blanks from a pistol just below Dunne's backside. Her entrance was appropriately flustered. Dunne recalled that Boleslawski was ill during much of the production. He died the following year, at the age of 48.
Like Dunne, Douglas had come to Hollywood from Broadway in 1931, and spent several years as a dramatic leading man to high-powered actresses like Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Theodora Goes Wild, he said later, was the film that earned him "an international reputation for being one of the most debonair and witty farceurs in Hollywood...and a salable commodity." For the next 40 years, Douglas went back and forth between stage and screen, segueing easily into character parts as he aged.
Dunne and Douglas' expert playing, a superb group of character actors in supporting roles, Boleslawski's fast-paced direction, Sidney Buchman's witty script, and Bernard Newman's over-the-top costumes all contributed to making Theodora Goes Wild a huge hit with audiences. Critics, surprisingly, were less enthusiastic. Several compared the film to Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and found it lacking. "Theodora is no match for Longfellow Deeds in sound, honest, homespun humor," harrumphed Frank Nugent in the New York Times, missing the point. "Although she goes wild, she also goes silly."
The Variety critic, however, noted that Dunne "takes the hurdle into comedy that so many dramatic actresses have made in the last year or two with versatile grace." Oscar® voters agreed, nominating Dunne for her second Best Actress Academy Award. In later years, critic Pauline Kael noted that "Irene Dunne was better in comedy than in her smug, sacrificial roles, and in [Theodora Goes Wild]...she was at her best. She's too bright - she's almost shrill in her brightness - and she does something clever with her teeth that makes one want to slap her, but she has energy, and this comedy...has a corny vitality that almost passes for wit."
Theodora Goes Wild also received an Oscar® nomination for editing. Although Dunne did not win (she would be nominated five times without winning), Theodora Goes Wild changed her career direction. Over the next few years, Dunne would reach the height of her popularity with such comedy classics as The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and My Favorite Wife (1940).
Director: Richard Boleslawski
Producer: Everett Riskin
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman, based on a story by Mary McCarthy
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Editor: Otto Meyer
Costume Design: Bernard Newman
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Morris Stoloff
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Theodora Lynn), Melvyn Douglas (Michael Grant), Thomas Mitchell (Jed Waterbury), Thurston Hall (Arthur Stevenson), Rosalind Keith (Adelaide Perry), Spring Byington (Rebecca Perry), Elisabeth Risdon (Aunt Mary), Margaret McWade (Aunt Elsie), Nana Bryant (Ethel Stephenson).
by Margarita Landazuri