Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Watching Oscar: Theodora Goes Wild

Film: Theodora Goes Wild
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

As should be evidence by the format line above, we’ve hooked up the cable again after about three years. This is the first time (if memory serves) that I’ve seen one of the films on The List off television. If it’s not, it’s one of the first. I can’t say I’m 100% behind the choice to hook the television back up, but I did miss TCM and I’m glad to have it back.

When I step into a screwball comedy, I’m never sure what to expect. I love some screwballs and there are others that I just can’t abide. The more I watch them, the more I realize what it is that I like about certain ones and dislike about others. In general, I like films that are about smart people. There’s no attraction for me to stupid characters, and often, screwball comedies are loaded with self-absorbed characters who (because they are in screwball comedies), act in the dumbest way possible. Fortunately, this is not the case with Theodora Goes Wild. I get these characters, and the film works for me because of it.

In the small New England town of Lyneville, the local newspaper publisher (Thomas Mitchell) has purchased the serial rights to the latest immoral novel by a woman named Caroline Adams. The town, of course, is scandalized by this, and the leading citizens, spinsters Mary (Elisabeth Risdon) and Elise (Margaret McWade) Lynn and their niece Theodora (Irene Dunne) lead the charge against getting the publisher to stop printing it. Of course, the real issue here is the identity of Caroline Adams. Naturally, this is Theodora herself, and she is desperate to keep the secret. She heads off to New York to visit her scandalous uncle (Robert Grieg) and visit her publisher (Thurston Hall).

While visiting the publisher, Theodora encounters Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), who created the art on the cover of her book. He’s obviously curious about what’s going on in Theodora’s world, so when she heads back home, he follows her. He poses as an out of work gardener and forces his way into Theodora’s life in an effort to get her to break out of her personal rut. And (of course), she falls for him and discovers that he has a past as well. Michael is the son of the state’s lieutenant governor, and is also married. His marriage is on the rocks, though, but has committed to staying married to keep his father’s administration from the pain of a scandal. Now free of her own restraints, Theodora decides to do the same thing for Michael that he has done for her.

So it’s a pretty simple plot, which is exactly what a screwball comedy really needs. They should be simple on the surface, but convoluted underneath once everything gets rolling, and the paragraphs above are really just the vague outlines of the story. But the main attraction for me here is that these are smart characters. Theodora does go wild, but she does so intelligently and with purpose, and she’s a real charmer.

It’s also really funny. There are some great moments here that work really naturally in the flow of the story. For instance, hoping to keep up the sham of his marriage, Michael and his wife Agnes (Leona Maricle) go to a reception for the governor. Theodora, who has decided to make her actual identity known to the world and has already been connected to the possible divorce of her publisher through a misunderstanding, crashes the party. She turns on the charm and dances with the governor, allowing her picture to be taken frequently, since even though the governor doesn’t know who she is, the press certainly does. Then she allows herself to be caught in a clinch with Michael, which puts additional pressure on Michael’s already crumbling marriage.

This is fun stuff, the sort of good-natured film that people really needed in the heart of the Great Depression. More importantly, it’s a film that has managed to translate to the modern world pretty well. Move the town in question from the staid New England of 80 years ago and transplant it to somewhere in the Bible Belt, and a lot of the opinions, attitudes, and tendency to gossip about the shame of other people still works. In fact, it’s probably the same in a lot of small towns around the country, Bible Belt or not.

I really enjoyed this film, and I’m happy that I saw it was playing. Totally worth seeing the next time Turner decides to show it.

Why to watch Theodora Goes Wild: It’s fun and cute as hell.
Why not to watch: For a wonder, I can’t think of a good reason.


  1. Sounds totally fun. I will keep an eye out for it.

    1. Who knew? I took a chance on it, and boy, was it worth it!

  2. Netflix has it too, so I've added it to my queue. In 20 years of marriage, my wife and I have never had cable or satellite, so I've never had the joy of TCM, and that's probably the only thing I'd watch anyway.

    On my blog I did a list of 19 actors I will watch anytime. I'd like to invite you to do that also. If you do I'll a link to your list. 19 Actors I Will Watch Any Time

    Also, if I may toot my horn some more, I did a list of the best movies first watched last year. Best or Most Interesting Movies First Watched In 2012

  3. A year or two ago I happened to stumble onto this movie on TCM. With a title like "Theodora Goes Wild" it was enough to make me stop there, even though I knew it would be pretty tame considering when the movie was made. Unfortunately, it was already a half hour or so into it, but since I got caught up in it I ended up watching the rest of it. Because I missed the first half hour I don't count this as a film watched and I figured I'd see the whole thing someday. After reading your review maybe I'll actively pursue seeing it, rather than waiting to stumble over it again.

    In regards to cable, you'll now be able to catch Hold Back the Dawn when it airs on TCM in February. Now there's a hard to track down Best Picture Oscar nominee. Also related to this, last Monday night TCM was going to show Juliet of the Spirits, a 1001 Movie I haven't seen yet, but I decided to watch the college football championship instead. There have been several times when I didn't know a movie was going to be on TCM, but I happened to catch it just before it started and I sat down to enjoy myself with it. It's a good channel.

    If we could have channels individually for say a dollar apiece per month, TCM would be one of the probably less than a dozen I would subscribe to.

  4. @Robert--I check out the list. I'm not sure I could narrow it down to just 19 people, but I think James Mason and (of course) Barbara Stanwyck would head mine.

    @Chip--I'm with you on that. So far, other than episodes of Storage Wars on A&E, it's the only channel I've spent any time watching.

    Also, missing Juliet of the Spirits isn't a terrible miss--it's not a particularly difficult film to find.

  5. This sounds like something I would enjoy! Thanks!

    1. I think it's right in line with what I've seen you like in the past.

  6. I also caught this on that savior of classic film TCM. It is a great deal of fun, proof once again that Melvyn Douglas could play just about anything and at the time of its release a real career changer for Irene Dunne. Up until this film's release she was one of the queens of the high gloss weepies seen as too dignified for comedy but by cutting loose here it surely netted her the role in The Awful Truth the next year and she jumped between the two genres from then on.

    Unfortunately I think you're right about the fact that Lyneville and its small minded inhabitants, also unfortunately not played by such talented performers (I love Elisabeth Risdon!), still exist today in far too many places. At least this film pokes fun at them.

    1. This was such a surprise. A great little film that manages a little bit of social commentary underneath the comedy. My guess is that plenty of people of the time went to this and were laughing at themselves without knowing it.