Theodora Goes Wild (1936)

Movie poster for Theodora Goes Wild.

One of the many wonderful comedies made during the Great Depression, Theodora Goes Wild explores a young woman’s quest for freedom in a society where tight constraints are the norm. The film’s humorous and entertaining look at some of the hang-ups of the period is a very fun way to spend about 90 minutes. Interestingly enough, we discover that not many things have changed since. Gossip still rules, small town folk are always too interested in each other’s lives, and people still yearn to live their lives the way they see fit.

Theodora Lynn, a respected daughter of the town’s prominent family, has written a book called “The Sinner”. It’s a wildly successful look at the life of an imaginary woman who does things her own way, very much unlike Theodora. She has penned it under the name Caroline Adams, to protect her identity. Meanwhile, the town is in an uproar over the scandalous morals of the book’s main character, all the while unaware that the very same young woman that plays the organ in church every Sunday morning and obeys her aunts to the letter is the author of said scandalous book.

Theodora visits her publisher on an occasion, and while there, meets Michael Grant, played by Melvyn Douglas, a debonair artist who works for the publisher but is very informal. He takes an immediate liking to her, and coaxes his way into having dinner with her and the publisher that evening. During dinner, he gets her to drink (which she never does) and as she unwinds and lets loose, he enjoys his little game more and more. He decides to pursue her back to her town and “free” her, as he puts it. He succeeds, but he has unleashed a force greater than him. She now intends to “free” him.

The film’s gloriously funny twists and turns had us in fits of laughter throughout. And the skewering of the old biddies in that small town was great fun too! The film showcases Irene Dunne’s incredible talent for comedy and sexiness (it’s no wonder she made such a great on-screen pair with Cary Grant), and fits Melvyn Douglas to a tee. He has an endearing quality that shows through his devilish smirks and his on-screen antics. That same quality made him perfect for the role of Leon in Ninotchka (opposite Greta Garbo) three years later. I can safely say that he’s become one of my favorite actors.

Just one year later, Irene Dunne made The Awful Truth (1937) with Cary Grant, one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s so funny to see her honing and refining the same skills she used to great success in that movie while watching this one. The same little trills of laughter, the same thin smiles, the same looks, glances… It’s wonderful to catch great actors doing some of their best work. It’s time well spent to watch them act.

There’s an important lesson to be learned from the movie as well. It’s easy to forget nowadays how stifling society used to be, and how scandalous certain behaviors were considered just a few decades ago. To some extent, that was a good thing, but it must have driven some people mad with frustration. Nowadays, things are much more relaxed, although we still tend to be judgmental. It seems we always want to tell others what to do and what not to do. Sure, it’s important to point out what’s morally and ethically wrong, but that’s the duty of our parents and families, NOT our neighbors and townsfolk. I don’t believe in the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”. No it does not! That sort of a village would be the quickest way to get me to rebel if I were still a child.

It’s also important to point out that while Theodora rebelled against the gossipy old biddies and against society, she did it all with a purpose, all while not compromising her own morals. She did not demean what she saw as her true worth. She simply put on a show to prove a point, and she certainly proved it. That’s something to keep in mind for the young people of today, who are so ready to step over any rules they might have set to get at what they want. Sometimes there are horrible consequences to that sort of behavior. If you watch the movie, you’ll remember that Theodora kept “both feet on the ground”. Keep that in mind. Have your fun, achieve your dreams, prove your point, but don’t do something you’d later regret.

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Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade“Easter Parade” is a veritable showcase of talent: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Irving Berlin, Ann Miller… need I say more?

There are many memorable scenes in this movie. One such scene is at the opening of the movie, where we see Fred, who plays Don Hewes, a famous dancer of his time, strolling through the streets of his town and buying gifts for his sweetheart, who is also his dancing partner. Happy as can be, he loads the arms of his gift carriers, while unbeknownst to him, his sweetheart is signing a contract and leaving their act. In this particular scene, Fred sees a rabbit he really wants to buy. Unfortunately, a little boy has sighted that same rabbit. Fred has to dazzle the boy with his dancing, and manages to draw his attention away to other toys – namely, drums. One can’t help thinking the boy’s mother would have preferred the rabbit! Nonetheless, Fred dances amazingly here. The absolute ease with which he dances still leaves me speechless.

To this day, I have not seen anyone dance as gracefully and as effortlessly as Fred Astaire, and this scene shows why. Every other tap dancer I’ve seen struggled through difficult movements, while Fred lightly tosses them at the viewer, nonchalantly, as if to say, “Look, it’s no big deal, I’m just enjoying myself…” Wow!

Ann Miller plays her usual role of hard-working girl, and her legs take center-stage in one of the movie’s big numbers. I think she manages to show her legs in most, if not all of the movies where she acts, but nowhere as prominently as in Kiss Me Kate (1953). I wonder if she wanted to do that, or the directors pushed her to do it. Peter Lawford also reprises his usual role of the time, that of the English pal, and does a great job at it, too.

Check out the trumpet player in the scene where Judy sings “That’s why I wish-igan I was in Michigan”. He can’t help smiling as Judy stands next to him. He’s starstruck, and it’s pretty funny.

In the scene where Fred tests out Judy as his dancing partner, Judy quips “I’m never sure” when he asks her whether she knows her left foot from her right, then goes on to explain why. When she was little, her doctor advised her family to force her to write with her right hand, even though she was left-handed. You might think that’s just a funny line, but it’s true, and it really wasn’t that funny for the children who were beaten and forced to use their right hands.

Another truly funny scene is when Fred asks Judy (the future “Juanita”) to walk ahead while on the street, so he could see whether men would notice her. The poor Judy tries saying hello to them, only to be ignored ruthlessly, until she makes the funniest face! Suddenly, everyone takes notice of her! To me, this is one of the most hilarious movie moments ever, and ranks right up there with the face that Cary Grant makes in the ending scene of Charade (1963).

Their first dance together as Hewes and Juanita is a disaster, and is worth watching for the wonderful counterpoint that it presents. There’s Fred, being truly professional, looking great, and thrown constantly off balance and out of poise by Judy’s confused prancing. And let’s not forget the flying feathers! The stage is filled with them. Judy ends up looking like a mad mother hen, turning out and looking for her chicks, while Fred, the elegant rooster, is ignored and stepped on. Wonderful, just wonderful!

I couldn’t find out the name of the frustrated head waiter at the restaurant featured in the movie. He’s snubbed not once, but twice, by Fred, Ann Miller and Peter Lawford, when they leave the restaurant without dining. His facial expressions and gestures are great fun to watch.

Fred’s “Steppin’ Out” number is the most interesting and difficult one in the movie. Besides the coreography, which is complicated enough, Fred does something amazing here. When you watch the scene, you wonder why it’s raised by about 2 inches halfway down its depth. Fred and the dancers have to watch out for that ledge, and it just doesn’t make sense, until something amazing happens at its end. The camera angle changes suddenly, and Fred starts moving in slow motion while the dancers in the background continue through at a normal pace. It is then that we realize the raised floor was used to delineate between the two shots, which were superimposed to create this wonderful effect. Today, this might not seem like much, but back then, this was amazing stuff. It’s similar to the special effects used by Fred in the Bojangles dance of Swing Time (1936).

Finally, it’s wonderful to watch the Fred and Judy’s vagabond dance. They’re dressed in the funniest outfits, and they play the roles of two “well-to-do” tramps who would like to make it to the town’s upper crust social events, but have no transportation. Ligia and I were rolling in laughter on our couch as we watched this. Judy’s got the ugliest wig, and they both have one of their front teeth blacked out. Come to think of it, it reminds me of Cary Grant’s wig in I Was a Male War Bride (1949). It does my heart good to see a number like this. It’s just wonderful!

Easter Parade is a wonderful movie, made memorable by the amazing coreography, music, and the chemistry between the actors who play in it – all true masters of their craft.

(This review has also been published at BlogCritics.)


One in a Million (1936)

One in a MillionJust saw “One in a Million” (1936), and was amazed by the harmonica players. Found out they’re called Borrah Minevitch’s Rascals. The movie is worth watching just for them. They play in the party scene, when Adolphe Menjou, as Tad Spencer, throws a party for Greta Muller, played by Sonja Henie, before the Olympic Games.

Don Ameche, one of my favorite actors, sings, then in come the Rascals. Great fun! If you have a chance, watch the movie. It’s also worth seeing so one can compare what was thought of as great skating back then, with what is considered great now. Big difference! The skaters of today have their work cut out for them! Incidentally, I think Adolphe Menjou and Richard Haydn looked very similar. As I watched the movie, I kept confusing Menjou with Haydn, in his part as Max Detweiler in “The Sound of Music” (1965). I kept asking myself how he could look the same thirty years later…