June 5, 2005

Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Grade: 76/100

Director: Richard Boleslawski
Stars: Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas, Thomas Mitchell

What it's about. Conservative New England small town is dominated socially by gossiping and prudish middle-aged ladies, with young Irene Dunne under their rule. But Dunne has a secret double life as an infamous romance novelist. Playboy Melvyn Douglas finds her out, and blows her cover. Theodora (Dunne) goes wild, much to Douglas' consternation, since he also has a public (and more hypocritic) persona to uphold.

How others will see it. Classic movie fans will likely cherish this film, and this audience is important since they are the only folks who will likely encounter this forgotten comedy. Okay, some classic film lovers prefer action movies, in the guise of westerns, detective stories, or war dramas. But those who seek delightful comedies written for those above the age of twenty will surely appreciate this jewel.

How I felt about it. What they won't do is analyze it, as I am about to. Even very good comedies cannot merely be enjoyed, at least if you are a critic. Their social comment must be revealed. Theodora Goes Wild compares the social prisons of the title character and Grant (Douglas). Both act proper in their public roles, and both are artists (a writer and a painter) in private lives. The difference between them, at least at first, is that Grant rebels against his role as dutiful husband, while Theodora does not, and actually probably enjoys the emotional safety of her close-knit and close-minded matronly community.

That is, before she 'goes wild,' and turns the tables on Douglas, who is all bark and no bite. Theodora as a scandalous troublemaker is the opposite of her lifelong wallflower personality. Her novel be passed off as a sheltered adult woman's fantasy, a way to live in a world where she can do what she pleases without ill consequences, and can win the man (or men) of her dreams. To assume such an exaggerated character in reel life is another matter altogether. Even if it could be pulled off, it would not be as graceful as is done here.

What about Thomas Mitchell, the flexible and favorite supporting actor from the thirties and forties? He's the local newspaper published in the small town, and he's apparently fumed for years at the hypocritical and snooping older ladies that control his town. He's publishing the scandal novel in serial format not only to sell papers, but to show the old biddies the limits of their power. He also relishes their duplicity. The same ladies who oppose the novel in public, eagerly read it in private.

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