Theodora Goes Wild (1936): Boleslawsky’s Screwball Comedy Starring Irene Dunne in Oscar-Nominated Performance

Richard Boleslawsky’s Theodora Goes Wild, based on Mary McCarthy’s short story, was released in 1936, the same year that saw Frank Capra’s small-town comedy Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

The two films are linked together in many ways.  Both features were produced by the same studio, Columbia, and both turned out to be unexpected hits at the box office.  The two films also shared the same screenwriter, Sidney Buchman, which my account for thematic linkages between them.

In her first major comedy role, Irene Dunne plays Theodora Lynn, a prim New England girl who writes a titillating best-selling novel under the name of Caroline Adams. Sheltered all her life, she keeps the book a secret from her two spinsterish aunts and the other members of the “respectable” Lynn Literary Circle. This is her act of rebellion. The film describes the transformation of a supposedly plain and repressed girl into the most eccentric and fun-loving woman. And it makes a distinction between wild and silly, as Uncle John says, “A Lynn may go wild, but never silly.” Theodora goes wild!

Theodora lives in Lynnfield, “the Biggest Little Town in Connecticut,” boasting a population of 4,426. The town is named after the Lynn family, whose only survivors are Theodora and her two aunts, Elsie and Mary. “The two oracles,” says editor Jed Waterbury (Thomas Mitchell), “Ain’t they gettin’ tired of running this town” No wonder the town got to be the “most benighted community,” the Lynns have been running it for seven generations.

The local paper, The Lynnfield Buggle, is the “pulse” of town; the residents take active interest in it. In the first scene, Mrs. Moffat complains that the installment he printed was not “fit to print.” “That’s just too bad,” says the stubborn editor, “but I run this newspaper.” When the telephone rings again, Jed is ready with an answer: “I know Mrs. Perry….It’s un-moral and not fit to print.” But Jed is impressed with the fact that his readers found it “too racy” to put it down. “I want to apologize,” he states scornfully, “for waking Lynnfield out of a twenty-year sleep.” However, knowing his hypocritical community, Jed made sure to print out extra copies.

The printing of the serialized novel is considered so “scandalous” and “shocking,” that the Literary Circle convenes at the Town Hall to discuss the “out and out shameless and indecent” matter. “We’ve kept this community clean so far,” she says Mrs. Perry, “there isn’t a book on the shelves of our public library that isn’t a credit to the good taste and morals of Lynnfield.” Indeed, the members are determined not to let “sexy trash like this come right into our homes and corrupt the morals of our youth.” When Jed gets his turn to speak, he accuses the community of “sticking its head in the sand,” and warns against the danger of “keeping civilization out of Lynnfield forever.” But believing that their duty is to keep Lynnfield “the one upstanding, God-fearing place left on earth,” the circle passes a resolution to tell the publisher that “this community condemns its lock, stock, and barrel.” Ironically, the prim and proper Mrs. Perry doesn’t know yet that her daughter has married and is pregnant in New York.

The film’s tone changes when the action moves to New York City.  The publisher, Arthur Stevenson, a smartly dressed man in an elegant office, reads a telegram from Lynnfield, which states: “A disgrace to American morals and a sin against American youth.” Theodora is so desperate she thinks Caroline Adams is immoral, which amuses the publisher because the book is “sweeping the country.” “But not clean,” she protests. To make the publisher understand her better, she asks him three questions: “Were you raised in a small town by two maiden aunts Have you taught Sunday School for fifteen years Have you played the organ in church for ten years” Undeterred, he says: “Nobody throws away a public in the millions and a tremendous career because of a conscience! It isn’t done.”

Theodora’s Uncle John resents his two spinsterish sisters, “the plaster saints” and “camphot balls.” He is the “only Lynn blacksheep in five generations, and the only happy Lynn.” Uncle John is concerned that nobody has ever called Theodora “baby,” and, what’s more, “no one ever will in Lynnfield.” In New York, Theodora meets Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), a “sophisticated” artist who illustrated her book.

Theodora contradicts his image of a writer who “ought to look like a woman that’s lived,” and Michael takes in on himself to emancipate her. “I’m gonna break you outa this jail,” vows Michael, and he does. Once liberated, Theodora runs wild, surpassing him in pranks and audacity. She now demonstrates what he has preached to her so persuasively, “Break loose, be yourself!” She recounts with pride how she told the town off: “This is a free country. I’m over twenty-one, and what I choose to do is none of Lynnfield business. I invite the whole town to take a jump in the lake.”

Theodora courts notoriety, invoking one scandal after another. Michael is trapped in a loveless marriage (for the sake of his father’s political career) and Theodora sees to it she is named correspondent in his divorce; she also makes headlines for allegedly breaking up her publisher’s marriage. Moving into Michael’s apartment (he moves out), she dresses eccentrically (in feathers), ties ribbons around her dog, and grants scandalous interviews to the press. Gradually, under his tutorship, the previously repressed Theodora loses her inhibitions and discovers the “real” joys of life. But it turns out that underneath his allegedly liberated exterior, Michael is as stifled and inhibited as she was. They take turns–now it’s Theodora’s role to liberate him from his bourgeois notion of propriety.

The film’s last scene takes place at the train station, but contrary to many films wherein the protagonist leaves town, conventions are reversed with Theodora’s arrival–in grand style. The whole town is on the platform awaiting her. After unloading her endless luggage, Theodora suddenly goes back. The gaping residents are horrified, and the band goes sour and trails off. A second later, Theodora comes back with a baby in her arms. There is a moment of silence: people think it’s her illegitimate baby. “You’d think they’d never seen a baby in their lives,” says Aunt Elsie, who is beginning to loosen up, “So help me, this town gets more narrow-minded every day.” But Theodora has the final joke, placing the baby in the arms of his grandmother, the utterly shocked Mrs. Perry.

Released in 1936, comparisons with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town were inevitable, and they were not to Theodora’s advantage. An “inconsequential comedy” with “farcical conceits” wrote the N.Y. Herald Tribune, but “nothing like the vitality of Mr. Deeds.” And the N.Y. Times critic noted that “Columbia was obviously dreaming of a distaff edition of Mr. Deeds,” but that Theodora “is no match for Longfellow Deeds in sound, honest homespun humor.”

Singled out by the New York Film Critics and the National Board of Review as Best Picture, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town was nominated for five Oscar Awards, winning Capra his second directorial award; hi first was for It Happened One Night.  In retrospect, however, Theodora has aged better, qualifying as one of the best screwball comedies ever made. Moreover, the movie became the precursor of numerous romantic comedies (“The Awful Truth” and “Ninotchka”), all based on similar premise: the magical transformation of their female protagonist when she falls in love for the first time.

In their thematics, both Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Theodora Goes Wild underline the eccentricities of small-town folk, always existent, though sometimes buried beneath solemn and prim appearances. Both works urge the viewers to look beyond exteriors, to dig beneath facades to find out the “real” individuality of small-town inhabitants. Under the right circumstances and appropriate tutelage, small-town people are capable of behaving in the most wildest and idiosyncratic manner.

In this film, Theodora transforms into a completely different woman, one who combines the best of her small-town heritage with her new Big City experiences.  Contrasted with Lynnfield’s gossipy housewives and spinsters on the one hand, and New York’s bourgeois, boring, and bitchy housewives (of Michael and the publisher), she emerges triumphant in both comparisons.


Orson Welles adapted the story with his Mercury Theatre actors for a January 14, 1940 episode of The Campbell Playhouse, with Loretta Young playing the Irene Dunne role.  Welles and Young appeared together in the noir thriller that he directed, The Stranger, in 1946.