Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Theodora

The great James Harvey led us, through his second masterpiece Movie Love in the Fifties, to the rare gem of Christmas Holiday (1944). In his earlier masterpiece Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, he led us to a more classical yet rarer and brighter gem.
It's true that by 1936 a lot of leading female stars with careers as tearjerker heroines much like Irene Dunne's had been, had gone screwball (even Joan Crawford had tried it). But none of them made the sensation that Dunne did: Theodora Goes Wild was another sleeper for Columbia, a huge and unexpected hit. It became the precursor and paradigm of almost every important romantic comedy to follow it, from The Awful Truth to Ninotchka to The Lady Eve. Like all those later films, it deals in impersonations and magical transformations. And the screenplay, by Sidney Buchman, is one of the most brilliantly constructed in the screwball cycle.

For the first half of the movie, Theodora Lynn is a Lombard heroine, involved in a nervous imposture, hectic and out of her depth, her reactions to the world around her startled, wary defensive: drinking "straight whiskey" and dancing on her partner's toes; doing a little dance of panic (to indicate casualness) when she stumbles into a man's bedroom; fending off the Literary Circle and her aunts and her blackmailer from the city all at once; fighting for the man she loves and scaring him away in the same outburst. Theodora's novel sets forces in motion she can't control or even fully comprehend -- just as Hazel Flagg's X-ray does.

But in the second half of the movie, the more distinctive Dunne heroine begins to emerge, and the screwball heroine herself takes an important evolutionary step. Where Lombard is almost helplessly outrageous, Theodora is deliberately so, choosing her craziness with full intention -- the first important screwball heroine to do this. Dunne enacts that crucial connection between lunacy and sense -- between abandon and the acutest kind of self-awareness -- that underlies all the great screwball comedies. . .

The "wild" Theodora is that ultimate glamorous figure: the one who sees the joke -- better than anyone else around. More than that: Dunne doesn't just see the joke -- she is radiant with it, possessed by it and glowing with it. Nobody else does this so completely or to quite the same degree: Dunne takes us inside her own amusement -- rich, energizing, seemingly inexhaustible.
Most of Harvey's ardent appreciation can be read here. (Pages 221 - 231) But as previously: buy the book.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936).