When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand

With constant revelations of Republican politicians’ sex scandals coming at us like loads of spermatazoa in hot pursuit of an ovum, I thought it would be appropriate to write an appreciation of the best comedy ever created on American Hypocrisy and false puritanism: Richard Boleslavski’s THEODORA GOES WILD.

Barely remembered today, director Boleslavski’s career managed to intersect with the highpoints of early twentieth century theatre and film: he studied acting at Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre where he was later director of its First Studio; he acted in a silent Carl Th. Dreyer film; on arrival in the U.S. he taught acting to Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler; then he was enticed to Hollywood when sound came in, where he directed Garbo and the Barrymores at M-G-M. In Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, the male protagonist wanted someday to be a director and mentioned Boleslavski as one of his idols. But Boleslavski died before his 47th birthday: 1936’s THEODORA was his penultimate film.

And THEODORA is a brilliant work. Theodora Lynn lives in a small New England town where she teaches Sunday School and sings in the church choir. However, she is also the author of a scandalous best-seller under the pseudonym of Caroline Adams. On a clandestine business trip to see her publisher in Manhattan, she meets the book’s illustrator, Michael Grant, who pushes himself into her life — eventually trailing her back home and making a nuisance of himself in her hometown. His explanation is he wants to force her to be honest with herself and with those around her, and to live life with no compromises. Falling for the guy, Theodora comes out to the town fussbudgets, confesses her love for Michael, and hurries to his New York apartment.

However, there’s a catch: Michael is married.

He’s been estranged from his wife for 5 years. They both want a divorce. But Michael’s father is Lieutenant Governor and having a divorce in the family would smear his Family Values reputation.

When Theodora discovers this, she goes wild!

THEODORA GOES WILD was a breakout role for Irene Dunne, who previously had been cast primarily in women’s weepie flicks. She was hesitant to give comedy a try, but evidently Boleslavski awoke great comedic gifts inside her. (Cary Grant said she had the most perfect comedy timing of any actress he’d worked with.) Her performance here, and in future comedies such as THE AWFUL TRUTH, incorporated wisecracking and slapstick but went far, far beyond either of these obvious means of generating laughs. As an actress Dunne embodied and lived the heightened wry humor of her comedies: for example, she and Grant improvised a lot of THE AWFUL TRUTH and between them they created and sustained an unparalleled bubbly universe in which they worked the ephemeral magic that acting can sometimes be. THEODORA also gave Dunne the second of her five Oscar nominations.

Michael (Melvyn Douglas) tries to contain Theodora (Irene Dunne) as she goes wild.

Michael (Melvyn Douglas) tries get a grip on Theodora (Irene Dunne)

While currently out of print, THEODORA GOES WILD has been announced to be part of an Icons of Screwball Comedy boxed set set for an August 2009 release. I’ve gone on record before as to the shortcomings of Sony and its treatment of the Columbia film archives; but let’s hope this is a Sure Thing.

Doug / PoMo Joan
PS — Once again, if you look hard enough during the Governor’s Ball sequence, you’ll see “Queen of the Dress Extras” Bess Flowers among the crowd.

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