IRENE DUNNE in THEODORA GOES WILD
As part of its Depression movie series, BREADLINES AND CHAMPAGNE, very pertinent for how things stand now, Film Forum is screening THEODORA GOES WILD (1936) on Friday, Feb. 27. Directed by Richard Boleslawsky (1889-1937), early advocate and teacher of the Stanislavsky Method and founder of American Laboratory Theater, which eventually became the Actors Studio (home of the insufferable James Lipton), this film, wildly successful in its day, made a star all over again of Irene Dunne, previously known mostly for her noble onscreen suffering (CIMARRON, BACK STREET, THE SECRET OF MME. BLANCHE, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, and John Cromwell’s ANN VICKERS, her greatest performance and one of the most intelligent, truly feminist films ever made in this country).
Was it Boleslawsky who unleashed Dunne’s comic potential, the way Howard Hawks did Carole Lombard’s two years before in 20TH CENTURY? Or did Dunne have it in her all the time, and just needed the right vehicle to display her brazenly artificial but undeniably effective farcical technique – that festively gurgling voice, the clenched pearly white smile displaying both rows of teeth, coquettish little teasings of the tongue, the just loose-enough body language (but never so loose as to make you ever forget she was a lady) and, most indelibly, that sarcastic little laugh of hers, “Uh-huh-uh-huh-uh-huh!” Critics James Agee and Pauline Kael found Dunne unbearably arch and irritating, but her energy is a tonic and she is always fun to watch, even when most strenuously conscious of being funny.
As a smalltown girl who secretly pens scandalously lurid pulp fiction, she won the second of her seven non-winning Oscar nominations and established herself as Hollywood’s most versatile leading lady, who could act in both comedy and drama, as well as sing everything from opera to Broadway tunes to pop (her SHOWBOAT came out the same year as THEODORA). She displays another gift here, as one of the great screen clotheshorses, sporting a wildly extravagant wardrobe designed by that Master of Flair, Bernard Newman (1903-66), who came to Hollywood as head designer of Bergdorf Goodman and is best known today for his Ginger Rogers dance frocks in TOP HAT, FOLLOW THE FLEET and SWING TIME. In 1935, he gave Katharine Hepburn the most elaborate wardrobe of her entire career, as a concert pianist in BREAK OF HEARTS, and for THEODORA, he poured Dunne into a welter of frothy print “girl next door” frocks at the beginning which evolve into more citified encrusted beaded evening confections, sophisticated cape effects, soaringly avian hats and a truly outrageous ensemble composed from head to toe of monkey fur (pictured below) which would have had PETA, had it existed in 1936, gnashing teeth. It all merely proved that, with her statuesque carriage, aristocratically retrousse profile and inimitable sense of fun, she could, indeed, wear anything.
It’s not a great film by any means, but an intensely likable one (from a story written by no less than THE GROUP’s Mary McCarthy), with its sunny, picket fence evocation of small town America, contrasted with sleek Art Moderne Manhattan, with its glass-bricked, cactus-accented interiors, eternal Martinis being shaken in Deco platinum and Melvyn Douglas’ suavely smug, lounge lizard book editor-romantic interest. The supporting cast benefits from beloved character actors like Thomas Mitchell being explosively irascible, Spring Byington being a flighty ding-a-ling, Nana Bryant doing dry urban wife, equine Leona Maricle even dryer and more urban, and Elisabeth Risdon and Margaret McWade revelling in Victorian propriety and outrage as Theo’s maiden aunts. It’s an unabashedly silly film guaranteed to put a smile on one’s face, with its blithe combination of countrified innocence and coy, “aren’t we naughty?” post-Hays Code suggestiveness.
Although Republican and staunchly Catholic, we still like Dunne, at least on screen, here pictured in later years, with her good buddy, the even more devout Loretta Young. They attended Mass regularly at a Beverly Hills church fondly referred to as “Our Lady of the Cadillacs.”