Monday, August 18, 2008

What Else Can You Expect from a Woman Named after a Byzantine Empress?

Anyone else get the feeling that if Puritanism never existed, American liberals would have felt compelled to invent it? Indeed, Puritanism is so often held to be the great American tradition that it is kinda depressing to look around and see the many ways we Americans have evolved beyond it. Even the most conservative of Americans today often indulge in activities -- living with their boyfriends or girlfriends before marriage, piercing their private parts, gazing at pornography, going to strip clubs -- that would have shocked our Puritan ancestors. And when you consider how many Americans today are not directly related to the Puritans, it is a wonder that Puritanism gets as much lip service as it does.

It is especially depressing to watch an old movie like Theodora Goes Wild and realize how much American culture has changed since the days when this movie was made. Back in 1936, when this movie was first released, small town gossip was no doubt still a thing to be feared and the loss of a woman’s reputation was still regarded as a genuinely serious matter. Yet today few enough people live in small towns to make fearing small town gossip worthwhile. And so many American women nowadays have done so much worse than indulge in the drinking and dancing that Theodora does when she finally rebels against the small town gossips in this movie that Theodora’s rebellion seems funny in a way that the filmmakers did not quite intend.

Anyway, the movie revolves around the life of a small town girl named Theodora Lynn (played by Irene Dunne) who chooses to start a literary career by writing romance novels under a pen name. Unfortunately for her, the novels prove to be quite popular -- and because they are very steamy -- controversial to boot. Her own aunts -- with whom she lives -- join a campaign to ban the books in her home town, and if that is not complicated enough, a big city acquaintance named Michael Grant (played by Melvyn Douglas) follows her back to her home town and threatens to expose her true identity.

Much is made of the fact that Theodora is basically a decent woman who eventually -- through circumstances beyond her control -- acquires a reputation for being anything but decent. Finally she gives in and deliberately embraces her new-found reputation, mocking the gossips of her home town by pretending to be the very type of “loose“ woman they assume her to be. As noted above, she drinks and dances in public and pretends to have various illicit affairs. She also discovers that Michael Grant who had been looking down on her for leading a double life has secrets of his own. And that city folks can be every bit as petty and hypocritical in their ways as small town residents.

The ending of the movie is too delicious to spoil. Let’s just say everything works out for Theodora Lynn in a way that seems quite logical -- and in the end, quite just.

Yet the most ironic thing about that ending is the way Theodora manages to get the attention of the townsfolk with an act that would receive little attention today. So I guess we should be glad that times have changed, right?


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