Irene Dunne

 Irene Marie Dunne was born on December 20th 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky. She trained for a career in singing and went to New York hoping to join the Metropolitan Opera Company. When she was rejected, she joined the Chicago touring company of the musical comedy Irene in 1920. She went on to perform in several roles on Broadway, her big break coming when Florenz Ziegfeld spotted her in an elevator! He was struck by her beauty and cast her as Magnolia Hawks in a touring production of Showboat in 1929 (a role she was later to perform on film). Her performance as Magnolia won her a film contract with RKO and she arrived in Hollywood in 1930, accompanied by her husband Dr Francis Griffin, who she had married in 1928. Unfortunately, her arrival in Hollywood coincided with a decline in the popularity of musicals and her first film, Leathernecking in 1930, was a musical comedy with part of the musical score removed.

 

Her performance in her fifth role, a Western - Cimarron, in 1931 won her an Oscar nomination for her role as the long suffering wife. In the film she aged from a young girl to an old woman and, although she did not win the Oscar, the film brought her great acclaim and enhanced her reputation considerably. A series of dramatic roles followed in the next couple of years.

Cimarron, 1931

Irene Dunne also continued to shine in musicals such as Sweet Adeline, 1934 and Roberta, 1935 where her musical training stood her in good stead. However, it was her Screwball period which brought her to the height of her popularity.

Theodora Goes Wild, 1936

Irene Dunne was to say in later life that she was a 'reluctant comic'. She felt that comedy felt 'too easy' and she preferred more serious roles. The ease with which she carried off comic roles can be seen in the hilarious Theodora Goes Wild, 1936 - the tale of a small town girl who secretly writes a scandalous best-seller. Irene Dunne fought against doing the film and, in fact, even went so far as to travel to Europe for two months in the hope that this would get her out of the movie. Luckily for us, this ruse did not succeed and Theodora Goes Wild brought her second Oscar nomination, although again she lost out.

 

A series of lively, fun and extremely entertaining romps followed, including two with Cary Grant - The Awful Truth, 1937 and My Favourite Wife, 1940. Cary Grant at one point told Garson Kanin that Irene Dunne was his favourite leading lady, partly because she was so inventive and delightful on set. Their performances in these two films are certainly a joy to behold and more than anything else, it looks as though they had FUN!!

The Awful Truth, 1937

She also played in the film Love Affair in 1939, alongside Charles Boyer. Many critics say that this was a superior film to the Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr version An Affair To Remember'. Personally, I would have LOVED to see Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in this film - I think that would have been the perfect pairing.

Irene Dunne continued to make films until her final film in 1952, It Grows on Trees, and also made numerous television appearances. She was nominated for an Oscar for five films:

Cimarron, 1931

Theodora Goes Wild, 1936

The Awful Truth, 1937

Love Affair, 1939

I Remember Mama, 1949

but, like Cary Grant, she did not win the elusive Oscar. In 1985, however, the Kennedy Center Honors celebration rewarded her with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her many triumphs. A staunch Republican and Catholic she was appointed Alternate Delegate to the UN in 1959 and was involved with several charitable organisations throughout her life.

Irene Dunne died on September 4th 1990 in Los Angeles. She was a very private person who did few interviews and is probably less well-remembered than other actresses of her era. She was equally convincing in dramatic and comedy roles, but it is her comedy performances that I personally most enjoy. They show her to be continually bubbling over with fun and wickedness, and it always seems that just under the surface is a laugh waiting to burst out.

 

 

Irene Dunne In Her Own Words

I recently found an old copy of the British Magazine Picturegoerfrom February 17 1945. This has a great article written by Irene Dunne herself and I have transcribed the text below.

 

Hats - Hunches and Happiness - by Irene Dunne

 Ten dollars to a teenage girl is a fortune, but none too much to purchase her heart's desire - a new hat. It was large, of silky straw, pale blue with long streamers and extravagantly painted flowers under the brim. It cost exactly ten dollars. The new crisp bill was in my purse - the first I had ever earned, given me for singing in the Indianapolis Baptist Church choir - singing hymns taught me by the nuns. I truly believe that from that day on, I subconsciously decided on a career. The hat did it.

A few years later, in New York, a blue hat did it again. Any young girl aspiring to a theatrical career held Florenz Ziegfeld in awe. I was no exception. When I found myself riding in a lift with the great showman, I was much too frightened even to look at him, much less get off at the same floor. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later, I discovered a young woman calling after me.

"Stop, stop," she called, "Mr Ziegfeld wants you, you, the girl in THE BLUE HAT!"

Showboat was the result.

And then, if it hadn't been for the wig-maker's hat I'm sure I would have lost the test for Sabra Cravat in 'Cimarron' . That, however, is another story.

Hats aren't the only thing that go into the writing of a life story. They can't be when a girl had a father like mine. I was only eleven when he died. Big, handsome, dynamic, Joseph j. Dunne was a man few could resist. Certainly his small daughter was one who could never forget him. nor the words he spoke to her the night before he died. I so well remember that Saturday evening.

"Happiness is never an accident", he told me. "It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores. Don't reach out wildly for this and that and the other thing. You'll end up empty handed if you do. Make up your mind what you want. Go after it. And be prepared to pay well for it. I hope that you'll go after the rooted things - the self-respect that comes when we accept our share of responsibility. Satisfying work. Marriage. A home. A family. For these things grow better with time, not less. These things are the very bulwarks of happiness."

Our home in Louisville, Kentucky, where I was born on December 20, was one of great happiness. Mother, Adelaide Henry of Newport, Kentucky, was gentle, fair, very beautiful and in direct contrast to my dark haired Irish father. Neither Charles, two years my junior, nor I ever tired of hearing about their courtship. 'Twas said father drove fifty miles each evening behind his spanking team of horses to keep his date with the pretty southern girl - carefully chaperoned by FOUR maiden aunts. "Truly a courageous undertaking it was my dear", he solemnly told us years later.

This lazy, charming, lackadaisical atmosphere of the sleepy Ohio and Mississippi River Valley was a wonderful one for Charles and me. Father, a supervisor of steamships for the United States Government, spent a greater part of each winter in Washington, during congressional sessions. His letters home to mother and to us children read as fascinatingly as any storybook. I have kept those letters.

No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father. I've always felt kindly towards fate for giving me my first success in 'Showboat'. Days and evenings at home were no less enchanting. Mother, an accomplished musician, taught me to play the piano as a very small girl. Music was as natural as breathing in our house.

When I was ten, I entered the Loretto Convent in St Louis. I studied the regular grade school curriculum, plus special music and art lessons and, yes, dramatics. I felt I had 'experience' behind me. Hadn't I, at the age of five, started my theatrical career as Mustard Seed in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' - the smallest role in the world?

The girl I left behind me would still be teaching the three R's in a country schoolhouse if I hadn't had a hunch. I'm speaking of the person I might have been. As a matter of fact, I've left more than one girl behind since the day I stepped off a train bound for Gary, Indiana, and school teaching, to enter a voice contest at the Chicago Musical College. I had my diploma, plus a teaching certificate as an art instructor. But I also had the bulletin announcing the contest. On a hunch I entered, and the schoolhouse faded into oblivion. After graduation from the Chicago Musical College came my teaching assignment and the trip which ended in the voice contest. I won the coveted scholarship and the ambition which had lain dormant since childhood, crystalized into a genuine aim to become a singer.

During a vacation trip to New York, I visited with the Pfaff family, old friends of mother's. Mrs Pfaff's daughter, Rosemary, was trying out for the leading role in a road show of the musical comedy 'Irene'. When she failed to win the role, Mrs Pfaff recommended me. To my surprise, I was given the part. But I was still too much the small town girl to 'go it on my own'. I wired home and mother came right to New York to chaperone me through a twenty-week tour of New Jersey, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

At the end of the run, I took the money we had saved and returned to school. I have always been grateful to my mother for her foresight, for her understanding of my needs and ambitions. she allowed me to make my own decisions and then made me abide by them. My hunch pushed me back to school. Again I studied at the Chicago Musical College and was one of three students chosen to sing in a contest with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I was as thrilled with this as with my Broadway debut, but won only second place. What has happened to the first prize winner I do not know.

Back in New York I thought that with my experience on the road and musical education it would be easy to win a role. It wasn't. Eventually I was given the chance to understudy Peggy Wood in 'The Clinging Vine'. When Miss Wood's father died she left the show and I was given the lead. The following summer I went to Atlanta, Georgia, and played a season of light opera. This gave me the opportunity to acquire a repertoire of Victor Herbert, Gilbert and Sullivan and Franz Lehar. I did a similar season in St Louis. Although I created no great furore, I was playing leads. I never knew the Broadway chorus line, the chorus dressing rooms, or how it felt to live in a hall bedroom sharing one pair of silk stockings with three other girls. I have much to be thankful for and I am. My hunches have been good to me.

Then I attended a supper dance at the Biltmore Hotel in New York with John Valentine, a singer and good friend. I was terribly excited. I felt this evening was important to me in some way. My dress was new, a bright red taffeta with a billowing skirt. I was dancing when I noticed a nice, well set-up, interesting man, wearing a grey suit, watching me from a doorway. I noticed he stopped at first one table, then another. I wondered what he was doing. Later I learned that he was trying to find a mutual friend to introduce us. He succeeded, but not until late. We danced and he asked if he might call. I knew better than to say "yes" immediately, but say "yes" I did. all my southern-belle training was for naught. He gravely wrote down my telephone number, thanked me for the dance and went his way. He didn't call me for six weeks!

I was furious. In vitriolic conversations held with myself, I knew what I would do when he did call. what did I do? I again said "yes". Three years later, i repeated that "yes" when he asked me to marry him. The man was Dr Francis Griffin - my husband. Our courtship bore out the bromide that 'true love never runs smooth'. He was a successful dentist living a gay, bachelor existence. He didn't want to fall in love. He had his clubs, his friends, his freedom. Also, as a native of Northampton, Massachusetts, where his family had been next-door neighbours to Calvin Coolidge, he had been brought up to believe that actresses were unknown quantities. With everything against us, we fell in love.

Frank hated having me in the theatre. Our battles raged furiously. Eventually, I was the one to capitulate. My hunch told me to. Also, I remembered the words of my adored father: "Marriage - a home - a family. For these things grow better with time, not less. These things are the very bulwarks of happiness". I agreed to marry Frank and leave the theatre.

On a hot summer day with the thermometer hovering near the 100 mark on one of those ghastly, unbelievably hot, moist days in New York, we were married in an old fashioned religious ceremony. My wedding gown was of beige lace with hat to match. It's treasured between layers of tissue paper waiting for our daughter, Mary Frances, whom we call 'Missy', to bring her the same happiness it has given me. After the large and very gay reception, in a haze of confetti and rice, we left for three days in Atlantic City from where we sailed in the Berengaria for a honeymoon in England, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland and Holland.

The day after I returned home wearing my beautiful new blue hat was the day I met Florenz Ziegfeld in the elevator. The hat caught his eye and Edna Ferber's glorious 'Showboat' was mine for the asking. Yet I had promised my husband. But I reckoned without my lucky hunches - the hunch that told me Dr Francis Griffin was 'my sort of people'. His smile when I told him was as brilliant as my hope. I took the role and since that time there has never been any question between us about my career.

Nothing can replace the excitement, the magic, and yes the glamour of a Ziegfeld show.. To see the great showman sitting in the second row busily writing his telegrams is a thrill no actress can forget. Mr Ziegfeld never came backstage. His telegrams spoke for him. The opening night of 'Showboat', when I received a congratulatory wire from Mr Ziegfeld, is a night I'll always remember. Then came the excitement of Hollywood contracts. Broadway offered all I had aspired to. Should I risk it all for an untried medium?

Again, playing a hunch, I turned my back on a stage career and came to Hollywood at the request of William LeBaron. still ringing in my ears was the caution of a friend "Irene" he warned, "you are too tall for pictures". But I went to Hollywood for the musical version of 'Present Arms'. It was criticized unmercifully, and rightly so. I was about to return to New York when I heard about the role of Sabra in Cimarron. Then and there I was determined to win that part.

At first there was an astounded gasp from producers. Sabra, a straight dramatic role, the emotional plum of the year, to a musical comedy star? Nonsense. Nonsense or not, I wanted that role. My father's words again rang in my mind - "Go after what you want". And it took a bit of going after. Came the day of the test. Something was needed. My make-up was perfect. My wig was beyond reproach, but there was something missing. Sitting in the make-up chair I remembered seeing the woman who designed the wigs that morning. She had on the kind of hat I wanted for Sabra. I ran around the lot , and a few minutes before the test, found her hidden away in a corner of the work room. I borrowed her hat.

I'm convinced as much today as I was then that the hat turned the trick.

Incidentally, for the first and only time in my career, my husband coached me in a role. The Sunday before my test he renounced his golf to cue me in my lines and spent the entire day watching me weep through the part. Cimarron started an entire new cycle for me. No longer was I a mere singer. From then on I was given a chance at such dramatic classics as the girl in Magnificent Obsession, Back Street, Symphony of Six Million, The Secret of Blanche, The Silver Cord, and so on.

Hollywood and the motion picture fans were very good to me, but I had a hunch that it was about time to try a comedy. My agent gasped. My friends shuddered. They begged me not to leave a sure success for a doubtful one. Their logic lost to my hunch. Despite those Cassandra warnings I accepted the harum scarum girl of Theodora Goes Wild. The Awful Truth followed and I found myself a comedienne. I enjoyed those roles as much as I did Love Affair, Invitation to Happiness, When Tomorrow Comes and Penny Serenade. But once having found the joy of comedy I managed to squeeze in a My Favourite Wife every once in a while. Then I returned to emotional drama with M-G-M's A Guy Named Joe, opposite Spencer Tracy, and The White Cliffs of Dover, and once more comedy with Together Again.

Perhaps now it is time for a musical comedy again - I'm not quite sure whether this is a hunch or not. Now that we have Mary Frances, Doctor allots more time to his Hollywood business than his New York practice. Mary Frances is our Missy. We adopted her a few days after she was born. She is lovely, all pink and white and gold. Missy is the heart of our Holm Hills House.

Remembering my own mother's interest in my music, every day Missy and I have a half hour practice at the piano together. She loves to draw and I am keeping her paintings to lacquer on a screen for her blue and white bedroom where her miniature white piano is her pride and joy. she attends school and we are proud parents at their monthly musicals.

Hollywood today is a place teeming with activity. Army hospitals, canteens, parties for the girls and boys in uniform, small dinners for our mutual friends, christening a ship in honour of my dear friend Carole Lombard, camp tours, all make up a life which has plenty of satisfaction in it. The glamour of Hollywood has never worn thin for me. I'm just as excited today over autograph fans as I was the day I arrived, and just as disappointed if I'm ignored. I still chuckle when I think how chagrined I was one morning in church when the girl next to me spotted Dorothy Lamour sitting in front of us. She leaned forward, asked for Dorothy's autograph, then turned to me saying "Isn't it exciting to see a movie star!"

~ The End ~

 

 

Filmography

Film

Year

Role

Co-Stars

Genre

Leathernecking

1930

Delphine Witherspoon

Ken Murray

Musical/Comedy

The Slippery Pearls

1931

Herself

Various Hollywood Stars

Comedy

The Great Lover

1931

Diana Page

Adolphe Menjou

Drama

Consolation Marriage

1931

Mary Brown

Pat O'Brien, Myrna Loy

Drama

Cimarron

1931

Sabra Cravat

Richard Dix

Western

Bachelor Apartment

1931

Helene Andrews

Lowell Sherman

Comedy

Symphony of Six Million

1932

Jessica

Ricardo Cortez

Drama

Thirteen Women

1932

Laura Stanhope

Ricardo Cortez, Myrna Loy

Drama

Back Street

1932

Ray Schmidt

John Boles, Zasu Pitts

Drama

The Silver Cord

1933

Christina Phelps

Joel McCrea

Drama

Secret of Madame Blanche

1933

Sally St John

Lionel Atwill

Drama

No Other Woman

1933

Anna Stanley

Charles Bickford

Drama

If I Were Free

1933

Sarah Cazenove

Clive Brook

Drama

Ann Vickers

1933

Ann Vickers

Walter Huston

Drama

This Man Is Mine

1934

Toni Dunlap

Ralph Bellamy

Drama

Sweet Adeline

1934

Adeline Schmidt

Donald Woods

Musical

The Age of Innocence

1934

Countess Ellen Olenska

John Boles

Drama

Stingaree

1934

Hilda Bouverie

Richard Dix

Comedy

Roberta

1935

Stephanie

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Comedy/Musical

Magnificent Obsession

1935

Helen Hudson

Robert Taylor

Drama

Theodora Goes Wild

1936

Theodora Lynn

Melvyn Douglas

Comedy

Show Boat

1936

Magnolia Hawkes Ravenal

Allan Jones

Musical

High Wide and Handsome

1937

Sally Walterson

Randolph Scott

Musical/Western

The Awful Truth

1937

Lucy Warriner

Cary Grant

Comedy

Joy of Living

1938

Maggie Garret

Douglas Fairbanks Jr

Comedy/Musical

Love Affair

1939

Terry McKay

Charles Boyer

Comedy/Drama

Invitation to Happiness

1939

Eleanor Wayne

Fred MacMurray

Drama

When Tomorrow Comes

1939

Helen

Charles Boyer

Drama

My Favourite Wife

1940

Ellen Arden

Cary Grant

Comedy

Penny Serenade

1941

Julie Gardiner Adams

Cary Grant

Drama

Unfinished Business

1941

Nancy Andrews

Robert Montgomery

Comedy

Lady in a Jam

1942

Jane Palmer

Ralph Bellamy

Comedy

Show Business at War

1943

Herself

Various

Documentary

A Guy Named Joe

1943

Dorinda Durston

Spencer Tracy

Drama

White Cliffs of Dover

1944

Susan Dunn Ashwood

Alan Marshal

Drama

Together Again

1944

Anne Crandall

Charles Boyer

Comedy

Over 21

1945

Paula Wharton

Alexander Knox

Comedy

Anna and The King of Siam

1946

Anna Leonowens

Rex Harrison

Drama

Life With Father

1947

Vinnie Day

William Powell, Liz Taylor

Comedy

I Remember Mama

1948

Mama Hansen

Barbara Bel Geddes

Drama

Never A Dull Moment

1950

Kay

Fred MacMurray

Comedy

The Mudlark

1950

Queen Victoria

Alec Guinness

Drama

Schlitz Playhouse of Stars

1951

Host (TV Series)

Various

Drama

It Grows on Trees

1952

Polly Baxter

Dean Jagger

Comedy

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