The three faces of Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild.
As Theodora Lynn, first daughter of the sedate small town of Lynnfield, Connecticut, Irene Dunne is a liberated woman waiting to happen. She seems to exist totally at the service of the town's older, more conservative forces, living with her two single aunts and their cat, and attending meetings of the local literary circle. Their latest agenda item is a stinging condemnation of a salty novel, The Sinner, currently serialized in the local paper. During a New York trip a few minutes into the film, however, the audience learns her secret. She wrote The Sinner under the pen name Caroline Adams. She isn't happy with the situation. After the fuss at home, she informs her publisher that she plans to quit writing.
Then she meets Michael Grant, the book's illustrator (Melvyn Douglas), and a transformation begins. He refuses to accept her prim exterior — all sensible hats and Peter Pan collars — and starts goading her to let her inner self out. At first it's perfectly innocent. She has too much to drink and lets him take her home to his bachelor apartment, only to run out before too much can happen. Then he follows her home to Lynnfield. Pretending to be a homeless man looking for work, he moves into her family's guesthouse and upsets their routine until she falls for him.
This is all the stuff of screwball comedy. James Harvey, author of Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, has called Theodora Goes Wild one of the models for later genre entries (including one starring Dunne, see below). Much has been made about screwball comedy as the province of the idle rich, but in truth, it's more about the liberating power of comedy. In screwball films (and it's primarily a film genre), the romance occurs when a free spirit sets out to liberate someone of the opposite sex in need of freedom. Katharine Hepburn's Susan in Bringing Up Baby (1934) saves staid paleontologist David (Cary Grant) from a life of boredom, while reporter Peter Arne (Clark Gable) in It Happened One Night (1934) shows spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) how the other half lives. In My Man Godfrey (1936), the ersatz hobo played by William Powell takes on Carole Lombard's entire pixilated family.
As such, screwball comedy has a powerful potential for celebrating queerness. In many of the genre's films, the liberating force upsets the traditional binaries of male-female, respectable-shameful and conservative-progressive. Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941), in particular, take on aggressive male roles, acting upon their more passive leading men (Grant and Henry Fonda, respectively). It's no surprise when Grant turns up in a frilly nightgown in Bringing Up Baby, which he can only explain by announcing, "I just went gay all of a sudden." Writer-director Preston Sturges shoots a lot of the love scenes in The Lady Eve with Stanwyck clearly in the dominant position. Even without that sexual role reversal, however, the object of screwball comedy's liberating forces often starts out as an incomplete person. He or she has to be queered, forced out of traditional binaries, to find the joy in life.
Bringing Up Baby is probably the most popular screwball comedy with contemporary audiences, partly because it's completely devoid of sentimentality. Director Howard Hawks keeps things moving so fast that even when Hepburn falls for Grant and thinks she's lost him, she has no time for self-pity. She just keeps pecking away at him until he gives in. Nor is there any return to normalcy at the end. When Susan's chaotic presence destroys the dinosaur fossil David's been working on for years, they're left hanging precariously on a scaffold, with only their love to keep them aloft in a world of destabilized norms. By contrast, Frank Capra's screwball films, though hardly without their charms, spend a lot more time on romantic disappointment. Even with actresses as good as the young Colbert or Jean Arthur in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and You Can't Take It With You (1938), modern audiences haven't got time for the tears. In addition, the endings reinforce traditional norms. It Happened One Night concludes with a new norm. Gable and Colbert are married, able share a motel room without a wall of bedclothes separating them. The fall of the Walls of Jericho, as they call it, provides a great punch line, but it's still a return to tradition. They may have upset the social apple cart by marrying across class lines, but they're still entering a traditional marriage.
There's another reason for Bringing Up Baby's popularity. Having the female character be the aggressor plays better with contemporary sensibilities (as does the presence of feminist icon Hepburn). By contrast, during the first part of Theodora Goes Wild, Douglas' efforts to break down Dunne's reserve reek of chauvinism. Even as the film pokes fun at her conservative small-town existence, his invasion of her life borders on harassment. When he tells her that he's going to keep at her until she tells the world she's Caroline Adams, you may be wondering who the hell he thinks he is.
Fortunately, the film's plot turns the tables on Douglas. Once Dunne confesses her love, he takes off. Then it's her turn to invade his life, particularly when she finds out he's trapped in a loveless marriage because of his father's political ambitions. She moves into his apartment and reveals herself to the world as Caroline Adams. The film is constructed as a series of journeys. Theodora goes from the country to the city, Michael follows her back to the country, she follows him back to the city, and it all winds up back in Lynnfield. With each trip, the characters become more liberated, as Michael helps Theodora express her passions, Theodora frees Michael from his stifling family life, and the whole town comes out to welcome the woman they now know — and love — as a creature of scandal.
The title Theodora Goes Wild says it all, as first Michael queers Theodora's life and then she queers his, at the same time queering her small town. One key element of this is a series of masquerades. At the start, Theodora is already living in disguise, pretending to be the perfect conservative while unleashing her pent-up passions in her writing. Michael uses his disguise as a homeless man to break her out of that stolid conventionalism. Then she creates a masquerade as Caroline Adams, donning outrageous costumes and playing the flirtatious sophisticate. Her clothes calm down as the film goes along, until she's tastefully chic, still a far cry from her mousy costumes when she was just Theodora. Queerness has rendered the once fragmented Theodora/Caroline a complete person.
She does much the same to Lynnfield. At the start, the town is dominated by the retrograde literary circle. Their hold on the town's morals is so great, they even push the newspaper editor to cancel his plans to serialize The Sinner. Yet it's clear from the start that the women who rule the town aren't really happy. One of the members of the literary circle begs for a copy of the paper, so she can read at least part of the book for herself. As the group's leader and the town's chief gossip, Spring Byington manages to evoke both shock and titillation as she breathlessly reads The Sinner's first chapter to the club and later passes on each new tidbit of gossip about Theodora and her wild doings in the big city. When Theodora comes home at the end, she tells the women to stay away from the train station, but still turns up, eager to see their town's first real celebrity. She can barely suppress her delight as the band plays "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight" to welcome the new Theodora home. It's as if she and Lynnfield were just waiting for something to come along and queer things up.
Dunne had never starred in a comedy before Theodora Goes Wild, and she initially turned down the role. Once she gave in, however, she threw herself into the comedy (reportedly with a lot of help from director Richard Boleslawski, one of the first teachers of the Stanislavsky System in the U.S.). She has a way of playing with her teeth, baring them in moments of distress, that's very funny, and a gift for making some of her silliest lines sound like improvisations. Douglas had done mostly serious roles as well, but he plays against his good looks to generate some appealingly antic moments when Theodora starts messing with his life. In his earlier scenes he also has a surprising grace as he sets his sights on seduction. He's so smooth, you get the sense that this could have been just a momentary conquest if she hadn't gotten to him romantically. While he's queering her life, she ends up queering his.
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Femininity = frivolity when Dunne tries out a new hat, one of the many tiresome sexist tropes in Together Again
The small town in Together Again (1944), another Dunne film packaged on the same DVD as Theodora Goes Wild, is ripe for the queering, too, but the journey isn't anywhere near as satisfying. With the success of the earlier film, Dunne got to star in more comedies, including two classics for Leo McCarey, The Awful Truth (1938) and Love Affair (1939). The latter teamed her for the first time with Charles Boyer, one of her favorite co-stars (and a good friend off-screen). They reunited the same year for the more serious When Tomorrow Comes and then five years later for the aptly named Together Again.
The film repeats more than the star pairing; there are distinct similarities to Theodora Goes Wild as well. Again, Dunne comes from a conservative small town that's invaded by an artist (Boyer), this time hired to build a statue in honor of her late husband, the town's former mayor. There's little in the way of masquerade and what there is (her father-in-law's faking an attack of gout to get out of a civic presentation or Dunne's faking interest in her daughter's suitor when the daughter falls for Boyer) is more standard comic plot contrivance than screwball liberation. The changes in Dunne's appearance are subtler as well. As she falls for Boyer, she lets her hair down (though its just a move into the long hair Dunne usually wore in the early 1940s). When she travels to New York earlier to interview Boyer for the job, she buys a new hat at her father-in-law's urging to try something more feminine, which seems to mean more frivolous.
And therein lies the rub. Dunne isn't just hiring the artist because she's a widow. When her husband died five years earlier, she took over as town mayor. In the one scene set in her office, she seems to be doing a pretty good job of it, taking on a garbage collector who's left one portion of her town swimming in swill and balancing the other demands of her job. Yet that's not enough for her father-in-law, or just about anybody else. The fact that she doesn't have a man in her life somehow makes her less of a woman. And, according to the town's newspaper publisher (Charles Dingle), the fact that she's a woman makes her less of a mayor.
When she shows up at Boyer's building in her new hat, the elevator operator (a teenaged Carl 'Alfalfa' Switzer), comes on to her, and it's treated as normal male behavior, as if trying to be more attractive turned her into a piece of meat. Later, when she finally admits her attraction to Boyer and they start planning a life together, there's no question of her remaining the mayor. Though he claims he wants to take her away to free her from her stifling small-town life, it's also pretty clear that he wants to take her away so she can stop working at a job she seems to like.
In fact, the whole universe seems to be rigged to get her out of one man's job and into another man's arms. They need the new statue of her late husband because a lightning strike decapitated the first one. Her father-in-law claims it was some kind of message from the deceased to force his widow to get out of town and find a new life. Rain is pouring when Dunne goes to interview Boyer in her studio. When she tries to use that as an excuse not to go out to dinner with him, the rain suddenly stops, clearing the way for their first date. He takes her to a dinner club whose star performer is a stripper (a page out of the Travis Bickle dating book, no doubt). Not only is the club raided, but also when the police catch Dunne in the lady's room without a dress (after an accidental spill at the dinner table), they think she's the stripper and haul her to the paddy wagon right past a conveniently placed photographer. When Boyer uses the potential scandal to blackmail her into letting him create the new sculpture and even move into her garage to do it, it seems as if the long arm of coincidence has conspired to keep her in his crosshairs.
As was the case with Douglas in Theodora Goes Wild, Boyer has to fight against the script's chauvinism. Fortunately, he has a light, technically assured touch with romantic comedy that makes him immensely appealing, and a lot of his scenes float along almost effortlessly. In better material, he'd be the perfect man to liberate someone.
Dunne, by contrast, seems to need liberating from the script. The comic bag of tricks that felt so fresh in Theodora Goes Wild and her McCarey films seems to have congealed in this picture. She can still play a simple scene honestly, and at times she really connects with Boyer and her other co-stars (Charles Coburn as her father-in-law, Elizabeth Patterson as her housekeeper, Mona Freeman as her stepdaughter). When the comic complications arise, however the script doesn't give her anything real to latch on to. She ends up playing comedy instead of objectives, and her efforts to keep the thing afloat fall flat.
She doesn't bear all the blame. The script is so mired in sexist binaries it never really makes it to the level of screwball comedy, no matter how hard it tries to imitate other screwball films. For contemporary audiences, it barely makes it to the level of comedy. This is particularly disappointing given that the film is produced and co-written (with playwright F. Hugh Herbert) by Virginia Van Upp, who also produced the film noir Gilda (1946), a picture swimming in queer subtext. Of course, a lot of that has been credited to Gilda's cast and director Charles Vidor (though they've told conflicting stories about how much of the queerness was intentional). And Vidor also directed Together Again. From other films, it's clear that he wasn't a bad director. He did very strong work on films like Ladies in Retirement (1941), a wonderfully creepy female-dominated thriller, Rhapsody (1954), a heady romance containing arguably Elizabeth Taylor's best performance, and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a musical bio with an interesting script by proto-feminist writer Isobel Lennart. But he's also had his share of clunkers, and, sadly, Together Again would seem to fall under that heading.