Sony offers us one masterpiece of Screwball Comedy and three lesser but in varying degrees perfectly acceptable minor films.
The masterpiece among these four movies is of course "Theodora Goes Wild", Columbia's 1936 comedy about the adventures of small town girl Theodora Lynn in the big city. Leading lady Dunne was so unattracted to such a role - a ditzy comedy - she took off for Europe in the hope Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn would give up on his 'crazy idea' of casting her, dignified and very proper Irene Dunne, a serious actress, as a small town girl who secretly pens a racy bestseller under a pseudonym, Caroline Adams, then tries to hide her famous identity back home from her church-going family and neighbors. Cohn stuck to his guns, and through one of those delightful transformations film is forever giving us, the melodramatic star of countless womens pictures reemerged reborn as a star comedienne!
The basic story line is pretty straightforward, Theodora doesn't want anyone to discover she is the author of a book condemned in her own home town, Lynnfield - named after her family! When Michael Grant, played by Melvyn Douglas at his most urbane, the artist who painted the sexually alluring cover for the book, tricks Theodora's publisher into meeting the highly elusive Ms 'Caroline Adams', the painter discovers she's anything but the wild debauchee the book suggests. Instead, the real author is terrified at all the notoriety and wishes she had never written 'That thing!" "What came over me!" Theodora says, as she explains to her publisher and the leering artist who she's certain is undressing her with his look, "Were you ever raised in a small town by two maiden aunts? Have you played the organ in church since you were fifteen? No, well I have. And right now I ask myself where did Caroline Adams come from? How did all this start?"
When Michael tries to discover the sexpot he believes is hidden behind Theodora's frigid reserve, he gets nowhere, and she flees back to Lynnfield. And just when Theodora thinks its safe to breath again and her secret is safe, who should appear whistling on the sidewalk in front of her quiet home but Grant, posing as an out of work drifter. When Theodora's aunts hire him to do some work around the place she's horrified. Naturally events follow a predictable course, with Theodora falling for Michael, but in this case Michael, satisfied he has won through Theodora's reserves, returns to the big city, leaving behind a shallow note, claiming he has 'freed' Theodora. Confused and upset, Theodora feels used and jilted.
Refusing to accept such treatment from Michael, and now infuriated by the wagging of local tongues gossiping about Theodora and a 'GARDENER!', a now flush with best-seller royalties Theodora sets off from small town Connecticut for New York City. There she discovers Michael also has his own issues, including an ugly bitter marriage continuing only because his father demands his son stay married as to not upset the father's political standing. Instantly recognizing her chance, Theodora moves in to embarass Michael as he embarassed her, and the film zooms into overdrive as Theodora, now turned out in outrageous fashions, and filling an eager press who lap up her juicy hints of broken marriages, becomes both avenging angel and comic muse.
The films high point: A dazzling Theodora giving the papparazzi a brilliant smile while dancing in the arms of the Governor, who of course has no clue as to the identity of his bewitching partner - now a notorious wild woman and homebreaker who has become front page copy in all the scandal sheets of New York. The handling and photography of this scene at the State Ball is one of the absolute highwater marks not only of Screwball Comedy but American film.
This deliberately limited synopsis only suggests an outline of parts of the film; what gives it such special charm is not only a clever storyline but the ease with which Dunne plays off her fellow actors - fine professionals who allow her to literally bloom from the girl of the three hankie weepies into the liberated comic creature she becomes.
Dunne was so good she received an Academy Award Nomination for Theodora, and the next year returned to comedy in the spontaneous perfection that is "The Awful Truth". The Awful Truth - a rare comedy nominee for Best Picture, and winner for best director. Dunne's mesmerizing skill at reading comedy is truly astonishing here, and once again she was nominated for Best Actress. For audiences of the times Dunne's performances were right out of left field, wholly unexpected for anyone who had sat through her playing interminable jilted women in such fare as "Back Street." Now at her best, Irene Dunne illuminates the screen, an irridescent actress, and "Theodora Goes Wild" is the first film showing her in full sail! Highest recommendation!
Of the three other films -
Dunne and Boyer in "Together Again" is a disappointment. I fail to see why just because a favorite actor or actress are in a film people lavish praise on it. This same uncritical adoration is laivshed indiscriminately on for several Myrna Loy/William Powell features - in particular the later films in the "Thin Man" series. Ladies and gentleman - "Together Again" is not a very good movie. Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer were earlier - and far better cast - in the superb film, "Love Affair", remade by its director Leo McCarey with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as "An Affair to Remember. The later well known version, in glorious color, and hugely popular, appears, when seen against the first version, way too long, sluggish and labored. Boyer is far better than Grant, superb as the famous lover, and Dunne more the assured lady than the timid Kerr. Sadly, like so many Columbias, this earlier film fell into a miserable state and today looks very poorly. Love Affair So watch this film about Boyer the sculptor, and Dunne as small town mayor, but go back and see Dunne and Boyer make magic together in the earlier film.
(Movie buffs as bored as I was by the basic film can at least have fun trying to spot a number of uncredited performers, notably two-time Oscar winner Shelley Winters at the very beginning of her career; Carole Mathews, long since escaped from a Midwestern nunnery and gone Hollywood; and Miss World's Fair, Adele Jergens, with her brunette hair now blonde as a stripper in what would too soon become her type casting. Oddly enough, for a wartime movie the director insists on showing far more of the aging Dunne than these young bombshells! At one point Ms Jergens is out of sight on stage performing while Dunne is before the camera backsatge in the ladies dressing room doing the actual stripping while her dress, with had wine spilled on it, is being ironed by an attendant. One can only imagine what the servicemen felt watching a film with the likes of New York's top show girl Adele Jergens beginning a strip tease when suddenly they are given such a switcheroo as that! The film also has an isolated and rather painful bittersweet elevator scene involving one of the Little Rascals.)
"The Doctor Takes a Wife" mixes Ray Milland and Loretta Young in a less than sterling story, but the two leads both offer charm. Gail Patrick is as ever typecasted as the other woman, and once again somewhat wasted. (To see Patrick in absolute top form one must watch "My Man Godfrey", given a magisterial reissue on Criterion - My Man Godfrey - Criterion Collection ) Let's hope the underrated Ms Young, perhaps too familar from her long running television show, finally can be seen in her better films, such as the obvious but utterly charming "The Farmer's Daughter".
The other Young feature finds her playing detective after a fashion - this is certainly nothing to get excited about.
Had "Theodora Goes Wild" been offered as a single feature this DVD issue would have received a full and very deserved five stars. Hopefully a four star review will not keep anyone from trying the lead feature. I should note that Dunne was not alone in losing out in the Academy Awards - in 1936 Carole Lombard was passed over for her glowing performance as Irene Bullock in "My Man Godfrey", and in 1937 Garbo, up for her work in "Camille" lost out. In 1937 Dunne's finest comedic partner, Cary Grant, amazingly wasn't even nominated!