Theodora Goes Wild, 1936, Columbia Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. B&W, 94 minutes.
Raised by maiden aunts in a small New England town, Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunne) is, by all appearances, a proper, modest young woman, leading the virtuous life expected of her. Unknown to the residents of Lynnfield (the town named for her family) and for that matter, the rest of the world, Theodora is writing explicit romantic novels under the pseudonym Caroline Adams.
While visiting her publisher, Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall), her secret is revealed to his wife, Ethel (Nana Bryant), as well as Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the artist who created the risqué picture that graces the cover of her book. Against Theodora’s better judgment, the four go out to dinner that evening, where the nervous young woman drinks far too much and ends up alone with a clearly amorous Michael in his apartment.
She flees back to Lynnfield, but Michael has learned where she lives—as well as her secret—and follows her home. With some light blackmail, he ends up serving as the gardener for the Lynn family—and falling in love with Theodora. The prim author of racy novels has found the man she only imagined existed, and she, too, has lost her heart to love.
But Michael has secrets of his own, and ends up with more than he bargained for with his prank, forcing him to end any hope of a future with his new-found love. Theodora, it turns out, has a “wild” side, and she brings that out to get him back.
This film had a number of plot elements that had been smoothed over to meet Code standards, such as a clearly unwed mother (whom we’re told has a husband, but the rest of the story belies that fact) and Theodora’s move into Michael’s apartment.
A wild Theodora is mild by today’s standards, but a lot of fun. This was the first comedy role for Irene Dunne, and she proved her comedic skills were sharp and innate. It was a career-defining role for Melvyn Douglas as well, who went on to refine the edgy, sardonic character he created with Michael Grant.
The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress for Dunne, as well as Best Film Editing.
Years later in an interview, Dunne recalled initially being reluctant to make the movie, but warming up to it because “the front office was behind it, which made the whole thing a lot of fun.” She also said that for many of her friends, it was a favorite of her roles, because they felt it was the one that was “most like me.”
This is a much-overlooked but delightful romantic comedy, with an original take on a standard story line and a walk to the edge of what movie makers could and could not explicitly say in films of that day. It draws you in from the start and never slows down to the exuberant end.