Screwball Theology

Film and religion professor Terry Lindvall recently alerted me to Theodora Goes Wild (1936), a screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Melvyn Douglas.  The DVD also contains another comedy, Together Again (1944), starring Dunne and Charles Boyer.  Both films offer an entertaining dialogue between iconoclastic behavior and conventional social mores, even if the outcomes are conservative and expected.

Of the two, Theodora Goes Wild is perhaps the most specifically religious or at least takes the American Protestant ethos head on.  In this film, Dunne plays Theodora Lynn, young woman who lives with her aunts in the small town of Lynnfield.  The town is sent into a panic when the local paper serializes a scandalous romantic novel.  Little do they know that their own daughter, Theodora, wrote this novel under the pen name Caroline Adams.  When she makes a trip into New York City to meet with her publicist, she becomes romantically entangled with Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), the cover illustrator for her steamy novel.  Through a series of events, she begins to live into the character she created, going wild herself in the process, drinking, dancing, buying expensive clothes, etc.

Theodora’s book and transformation represent the iconoclastic behavior that challenges the restrictive Protestant guidelines that her aunts and the rest of the Lynnfield Literary Society embody.  Of course, these guidelines really only apply to women.  When her publisher exhibits similar scandalous behavior (getting drunk and flirting with other women) it is simply frowned upon (if that) but not taken seriously.  Yet Theodora’s transgression is simultaneously an attack on the conservative environment in which she grew up while also an attack on the transgression itself.  Even as Theodora goes wild, she does it with something of a wink, perhaps enhanced by Dunne’s type of stardom (more on this in a moment).  The elaborate clothes that she buys, the ways in which she drinks, etc. all reveal that she knows this type of behavior is just as silly as her aunts’.  In fact, the editing of the film makes the gossiping network of elderly women seem just as absurd and offensive as the people they gossip about.

Together Again is also somewhat problematic…in terms of gender.  In this film, Dunne plays Anne Crandall, the widowed mayor of a small town, Brookhaven.  Her husband was the former mayor before he passed away, and the citizens have since commemorated his service with a statue in the town square.  Yet when lightening damages it, Anne sets off to New York to meet with an artist, George Corday (Boyer), who will create a replacement.  They too become romantically involved.

Throughout the story, Anne’s father-in-law, Jonathan Crandall Sr. (Charles Coburn) constantly accuses her of living a lie, arguing that she is not really happy as the mayor (in a man’s role) and will only be so once she abdicates her duties and settles down with a new husband.  Though Anne resists this vehemently and even though her actions as mayor reveal her leadership abilities, the arc of the narrative betrays her independence and strengthens the gender roles that Jonathan sets forth.  While Theodora Goes Wild deals more with religious fundamentalism, there is an explicit theological component to Together Again.  In the film, God is presented as a glorified Cupid.  The characters hold God responsible for destroying the statue which lead Anne into the arms of George in the first place.  At the end of the film, just when it seems like Anne will walk away from George, a loud blast of thunder and strikes of lightening send her back to his apartment.

Dunne, as an individual and a movie star, makes an interesting Hollywood personality.  In her book, The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger provides a brief but insightful biography of this stunning actress.  Basinger goes to great lengths to outline the star machine that made the studio system work so effectively.  Actors and actresses were molded on-screen and off to create personalities that would attract massive audiences in repeat performances.  Oftentimes, the studios’ publicity departments would make up elaborate stories about the actors’ private lives to enhance their on-screen personalities.  As Basinger shows, Dunne played no part in this.  She would squash rumors and stories immediately and unashamedly spoke about, and was content with, her “boring” life.  She lived a rather calm Hollywood life and remained married to her first and only husband, a dentist who closed his practice and moved west with Dunne when her popularity rose.  Throughout her life, Dunne remained strongly committed to her Catholic faith and, after her acting career ended, even served as an alternate delegate to the United Nations.  Decades later, her beauty captivates like few actresses in the history of film and her performances and films prove just as effective and entertaining.