There is this slightly wacky and sweet 1936 movie named Theodora Goes Wild, directed by Richard Boleslawsky and with Irene Dunne in the title role. To be completely honest, I initially thought nobody in the classic film community had heard of this film, but after finding a couple of reviews of it online, it turns out I was wrong! Still, I think we can agree it isn’t as well known as some of the other Dunne’s films, like, say The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I love discovering hidden gems amongst classic movies – even if they are not as hidden as I thought…
Dunne is Theodora Lynn, a small-town Sunday school teacher in a place called Lynnfield, but she secretly writes scandalous saucy novels under the nom de plume of Caroline Adams. All is calm in Lynnfield until the appearance of Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), an artist from the city who will try to convince Theodora to escape the stifling social norms of Lynnfield and start calling her soul her own. But he also has some skeletons of his own, and Theodora might just be willing to help him to break free…
The first time I heard about this film was from a book (so technically I didn’t hear about it, but come on) – I have this very informative book about fashion designers and costumes in movies (I got it as a gift, so it’s not bragging if i say it’s good). So this movie was listed under the name of Bernard Newman as the one for which he designed costumes, amongst his other works. He also designed for Dunne in Roberta, but perhaps even more famous is his work for Top Hat and Swing Time. I mean, we all know that immaculately pleated, white-collared dress Ginger wore during the number Pick Yourself Up in Swing Time.
According to the Wikipedia page, he also provides costumes for Follow the Fleet, Sylvia Scarlet, Vivacious Lady, You Can’t Take it With You… I honestly had no idea he worked for so many well-known films until now that I’ve checked. I have also read that Ginger Rogers was his favorite star to work with, so it makes sense that he designed her gowns for so many movies.
However, he also provided gowns for Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild, and this is the movie I started talking about. Costumes in this one are sheer late 1930s perfection. Slim silhouette, moderately accentuated shoulders, delicate details and ornaments. A perfect balance between feminine and masculine elements, which makes the clothes look incredibly flattering. I’ve been in a very 1930s mood recently when it comes to movies, and it only reminds me how interesting this era was in terms of fashion as well. Some of the hats worn by actresses in Theodora even remind me a bit of Elsa Schiaparelli’s designs. Take the below one for example:
Dunne’s costumes in the first part of the film are what you could call: teacher’s fashion, but make it glamorous. Prim and proper, and mostly strict in silhouette, but with some playful and cute details like polka-dot patterns and bows. Which happens to be my idea of a dream wardrobe, by the way. I adore the idea of mixing a more strict silhouette with some more saccharine details.
But that is before Theodora goes wild… before the pinnacle scene in the movie, where she shows up to her publisher’s office dressed in what seems like gorilla’s fur. As pointed out in the book I mentioned before, this costume is supposed to represent her literally going wild like an ape… which is obviously pretty offensive, but the costume itself is an interesting creation and it actually looks good in a way, what do you think?
After this scene the costume design become far more bold but also somewhat outrageous – some of Theodora’s clothes later in the film couldn’t really be worn in real life, and some are almost comical, like this peculiar lame coat:
I do like the shape around the neckline though – if it was some other fabric it could have looked nice, I think. But obviously Theodora doesn’t want to present herself as “nice” at this point of the story anymore, ha!
From what I have read, Theodora Goes Wild was Dunne’s first foray into comedy (she mostly played in dramas prior to that), which caused her to be a bit nervous during the filming. Well, I personally think she was very good. I haven’t seen any of her later comedy films though, so I have nothing to compare it to, but I think she was very charismatic in this role. FYI, I have only watched her in Roberta prior to this one, and while I remember liking her rendition of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, other than that I must admit I don’t remember her performance in Roberta too well… I suppose it’s definitely time for a rewatch. However, now I am intrigued by Irene Dunne and would love to see more of her films. Her acting in Theodora Goes Wild reminds me a bit of Kate Hepburn, especially the way she laughs. Particularly I’m reminded of Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby – I would say she had something of Kate’s charisma.
And, before I forget, I want to mention another thing I liked in this film – Irene’s lovely version of the song Be Still, My Heart, which she sings to silence Melvyn Douglas’ Michael who is whistling in the middle of the night. I mean, “lovely” might not be the best word considering the circumstances she sings it in (and her annoyed facial expression while she’s singing it, ha-ha), but it is a very lovely tune and I hadn’t heard it before.
Now I am considering expanding my knowledge of Irene’s filmography – she seems like an intruiguing actress for sure, and even though she’s not exactly unknown, she is not as often talked about as some other stars of the era. And, just like I love discovering lesser known films, I also like discovering slightly less famous actors. I have some titles on my list already – I am thinking of watching The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife, as those are amongst her best known films. Also, she played alongside Cary Grant there, which sounds intruiguing in itself…