Theodora Goes Wild

(director: Richard Boleslawski; screenwriters: Sidney Buchman/based on a story by Mary McCarthy; cinematographer: Joseph Walker; editor: Otto Meyer; music: Morris Stoloff; 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), Robert Greig (Uncle John Lynn), Henry Kolker (Jonathan Grant), Leona Maricle (Agnes Grant); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Everett Riskin; Columbia Pictures; 1936)

“Theodora goes silly rather than wild in this outdated look at how they made comedies back then.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Theodora goes silly rather than wild in this outdated look at how they made comedies back then. It’s a trendsetter for those screwball comedies of the 1930s, as it has its place in cinema history as the precursor in how to make the romantic comedy. The uneven diverting comedy is helmed by the Polish director Richard Boleslawski (“Rasputin and the Empress”/”The Painted Veil”), who just had no flair for comedy. He was ill through most of the shoot and died the year after the theater release, at the age of 48. It’s written by Sidney Buchman and based on a story by Mary McCarthy.

Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is a spinsterish twentysomething Sunday school teacher and church organist in the small and stuffy Connecticut town of Lynnfield, named after her relatives who have run things in town for five generations. She secretly writes a racy best-selling novel called The Sinner under the pseudonym of “Carolyn Adams,” which gets run as a serial by the Lynnfield Bugle editor Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell). But the local literary circle, headed by the prudish gossiper Rebecca Perry (Spring Byington), object to its raciness and the paper is forced to stop running the novel. Theodora tells her relatives and friends in Lynnfield she will visit her Uncle John (Robert Greig), the proper family’s improper black sheep, in New York, but first stops for a meeting with her publisher Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall). Her real name is kept secret by him. There she gets invited out to dinner with Stevenson’s admiring wife Ethel (Nana Bryant) and the sophisticated book illustrator Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas). At dinner, with the foursome, Michael teases her for her naïveté and lack of worldliness. Trying to get in the role of how Caroline Adams thinks, she dances with him and gets drunk and goes with Michael to his apartment. But she’s frightened off by Michael’s advances and flees back to her hometown. Michael pursues her there using the pseudonym Dubarry and implores her to hire him as her gardener. This leads to them falling in love with each other.

Michael’s father Jonathan (Henry Kolker), the lieutenant governor, and Michael’s estranged wife, of the last five years, Agnes (Leona Maricle), surprisingly show up in Lynnfield and Michael flees back to the city. Michael says he can’t get a divorce in this loveless marriage because it would damage his ambitious father’s political career, but they can be married in two years after his father retires. Not satisfied with this, the changed Theodora follows Michael to the Big City and has her publisher reveal her identity. This scandalizes her hometown, as Theodora’s maiden aunts who raised her, Mary (Elisabeth Risdon) and Elsie (Margaret McWade), declare that she has “gone wild.”

The longer the film goes on the more it loses most of its earlier zip, as it turned too much of its attention on the irritating Douglas character (sounding off like a liberal but is really a conservative) and his problems with his hypocritical politician father. Dunne, in her first leading comedy role, a role she was forced to do by her new studio Columbia or face suspension, shows she has a flair for comedy. She previously started out doing musicals, then romantic melodramas and was even in a Western (Cimarron), but she’s best suited for comedies as proven by her later roles in “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife.” It’s just too bad this film, which was critically acclaimed at the time, when viewed in modern times doesn’t really seem important, funny or madcap.