“Caviar to the general.” That was a friend’s comment, offered with a shrug and a waved hand, one afternoon a few decades ago when I asked him why of all the big-time golden-age Hollywood leading actresses we cherished—Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, and not to forget that queen of implacable tenacity Joan Crawford—Irene Dunne was, at least as I viewed the situation, the least idolized, the most thoroughly neglected and unfairly unappreciated.
“Caviar to the general”—it’s from Hamlet, by the way: “The play . . . pleased not the million; ’twas caviare to the general.” Too special, my friend went on to say, too much of an acquired taste, and, worse, too good at too many things: sudsy weepers like Back Street (1932), Magnificent Obsession (1935), and Love Affair (1939); wartime inspiration epics like A Guy Named Joe (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944); great-lady vehicles like Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and I Remember Mama (1948). Even musicals like Roberta (1935) and James Whale’s gorgeous film adaptation of Show Boat (1936), in which Dunne shares one scene, bursting with star power, with Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel, and Helen Morgan, and one can only wonder what they chatted about between takes.
But let’s be honest, it’s the comedies we were really talking about that afternoon, and Dunne made four of the most vivacious dazzlers: The Awful Truth (1937), Joy of Living (1938), My Favorite Wife (1940), and our focus for the moment, her comic debut, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), directed by Richard Boleslawski from a screenplay by Sidney Buchman based on a story by Mary (no, not Lillian Hellman’s nemesis, a different writer altogether) McCarthy.
Ah yes, you might be thinking: the screwballs. So let’s pause and take a moment to try to define that catch-all term. A screwball comedy, the critic Andrew Sarris declared, is “a sex comedy without sex,” which is jaunty but doesn’t actually say anything: Don’t most sex comedies celebrate the chase (and its inherent frustrations) over the actual act? Other elements of the genre, depending on whom you ask, include snappy dialogue, slapstick, mistaken identity and disguise, class conflict, the undermining of standard-issue masculinity, and an aggressively madcap female lead. Which is a roomy-enough tent to give space to the varied likes of Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), Nothing Sacred (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire (both 1941), and that absolute lunatic explosion of sense and propriety The Palm Beach Story (1942). To say nothing, now that I think of it, of Twelfth Night (ca. 1601).