Irene Dunne (1898 – 1990):
”I’ll leave the swearing to the Jane Fondas.”
She is one of my three favorite female actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, and like my number one choice, Barbara Stanwyck, Dunne was a good solid Republican. But, Republicanism meant something different in that era: business people and industrialists who accepted, or at least acquiesced to, the Roosevelt Revolution and the essential premises of Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s and Harry S. Truman‘s foreign policy. They were anti-Communist, passionately committed to limited government and free market economics. They were also committed to American democracy, compromise and moderation. Not like today’s White Nationalist religious fanatics willing to destroy the planet for monetary gain while fucking over poor people Republicans. I think most Hollywood Republicans just wanted to hold on to more of their hard-earned dollars. Among the era’s supporters of the GOP: Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ginger Rogers, and Gary Copper.
So, with that out of the way, let me say that Dunne could do it all: Dramas, Comedies, and Musicals (she could really sing), and especially Screwball Comedy. She was able to be elegant and madcap in the same moment.
Dunne was Cary Grant’s favorite co-star. They made three films together. All three A+: Leo McCarey‘s The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940) for Garson Kanin, and George Stevens‘ Penny Serenade (1941).
”I appeared with many leading men. But, working with Cary Grant was different from working with other actors; he was much more fun! I think we were a successful team because we enjoyed working together tremendously, and that pleasure must have shown through onto the screen. I will always remember two compliments he made me. He said I had perfect timing in comedy and that I was the sweetest-smelling actress he ever worked with.”
Hollywood discovered Dunne in 1929 while she was performing on stage in the first touring company of the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway musical Show Boat. She was offered a contract with RKO Pictures in 1930. In 1936, she re-created her role as Magnolia in what is considered the good film version of Show Boat, the one directed by the great James Whale. Lesbian writer Edna Ferber‘s novel, on which the musical is based, had already been filmed in 1929, and the musical would be remade in Technicolor in 1951.
Blessed with impressive range both vocally and in her acting, Dunne started in pre-code dramas such as Back Street (1932) and the original Magnificent Obsession (1935). The first of three films she made opposite Charles Boyer, Love Affair (1939), a weeper if ever there was one, is perhaps one of her best known. She sang Jerome Kern‘s Lovely To Look At and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film Roberta (1935).
Dunne was persuaded to do comedy with the offer of her first big starring role in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), and she discovered that she loved it. And, she received her second of five Academy Award nominations for it. The film was also a huge hit.
Dunne received those five Oscar nominations, but she never won, not even one of the Honorary Oscars the Academy passes out when they feel guilty.
”Her timing was marvelous. She was so good that she made comedy look easy. If she’d made it look as difficult as it really is, she would have won her Oscar.”
Other favorites: Anna And The King Of Siam (1946), Life With Father (1947), and I Remember Mama (1948), based on gay writer John Van Druten’s popular play. It is a hard-boiled, unflinching exploration of what happens when we allow these immigrants, possible terrorists, in to our once great country: kids falling down, window-weights, alcoholism, couples living together without benefit of matrimony, animal cruelty, diseases, elitist San Francisco liberal values, child pornography. They are bad people, I mean, some Norwegians are good people, I hear, but we must do something until we figure out what’s going on.
Dunne’s first film was in 1930 and her final screen appearance was in 1952’s It Grows On Trees, a light comedy. She wanted to continue with a film career, but was never again offered roles that interested her. She did television performances on Ford Theatre, General Electric Theater, and the Schlitz Playhouse Of Stars, continuing to act until 1962.
Devoutly Catholic, and deeply Conservative, she served the Eisenhower Administration as a delegate to the U.N. Dunne was the first woman ever elected to the Technicolor board of directors. For Governor Ronald Reagan, she served on the California Arts Commission. Republicans for The Arts, what the hell was that all about?
She was married to Dr. Frank Griffin, M.D. from 1929, until his passing in 1965. The Griffins did not do the Hollywood party scene. They hung out with Loretta Young and played golf.
She attended mass at the beautiful Spanish style Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, and I would see her there when I occasionally attended with a Jesuit friend so that we could gawk at the Catholic celebs such as: Rosemary Clooney, Alfred Hitchcock, Rita Hayworth, Danny Thomas, the Gabors (1995), and Merv Griffin. It is also home to a relic of Saint Vibiana, a third-century virgin martyr, and patron saint of Cinerama.
Dunne left this life in 1990. She is buried at Calvary Cemetery, the Catholic cemetery for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
I recently caught Dunne in Joy Of Living (1938) with an early, funny performance by Lucille Ball. I didn’t even know about this one, and I thought I had experienced everything in TCM’s vault.
This film was swiftly paced, a good thing because it is weak on plot, but still truly delightful. Each scene sparkles and shines. Everything about it is so relaxed and fresh, and Dunne has real chemistry with yummy Douglas Fairbanks Jr. There are songs by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, who also did the screenplay. Solid B, with an A+ for Dunne.