Dunne, Irene (1898–1990)

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Dunne, Irene (1898–1990)

American stage and film actress, nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Actress, who moved easily from serious drama to musicals to "screwball comedy" and was best remembered for her roles in The Awful Truth, Anna and the King of Siam, and I Remember Mama. Born Irene Marie Dunn in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 20, 1898 (and not 1901, 1902, 1904, or 1907, as often given); died of heart failure in Hollywood, California, on September 4, 1991, at age 91; daughter of Joseph John Dunn and Adelaide Antoinette (Henry) Dunn; attended local schools, a music conservatory in Indianapolis, and the Chicago Musical College; married Francis J. Griffin (a New York dentist), in 1927 (died 1965); children: daughter, Mary Frances Griffin (adopted, 1936).


nominated for Academy Award for Best Actress for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948); granted honorary degree of Doctor of Music from Chicago Music College; named honorary member of the music fraternity, Sigma Alpha Iota; received University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal for her work for Catholic charities; chosen honorary National Commander of the American Cancer Society volunteer army; named chair of the National Women's Committee of the American Heart Association, chair of the Sponsor's Committee of the Hebrew University Rebuilding Fund, and by the National Conference of Christians and Jews as the woman who has done most to promote better understanding of peoples of all faiths (1948).

First appeared on stage in Irene (on tour, 1920); made New York debut in The Clinging Vine (1922); appeared in Lollipop (1924) and The City Chap (1925); toured in Sweetheart Time (1926); appeared on Broadway in Yours Truly (1927), She's My Baby (1928); appeared in Chicago in Show Boat (1929); made last stage appearance in New York in Luckee Girl (1930).


Leathernecking (also known as Present Arms, 1930); Cimarron (1930); Bachelor Apartment (1931); Consolation Marriage (Married in Haste, 1931); The Great Lover (1931); Symphony of Six Million (Melody of Life, 1932); Back Street (1932); Thirteen Women (1932); No Other Woman (1933); The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933); The Silver Cord (1933); Ann Vickers (1933); If I were Free (Behold We Live, 1933); This Man is Mine (1934); Stingaree (1934); The Age of Innocence (1934); Sweet Adeline (1935); Roberta (1935); Magnificent Obsession (1935); Show Boat (1936); Theodora Goes Wild (1936); High, Wide and Handsome (1937); The Awful Truth (1937); Joy of Living (1938); Love Affair

(1939); Invitation to Happiness (1939); When Tomorrow Comes (1939); My Favorite Wife (1940); Penny Serenade (1941); Unfinished Business (1941); Lady in a Jam (1942); A Guy Named Joe (1943); The White Cliffs of Dover (1944); Together Again (1944); Over 21 (1945); Anna and the King of Siam (1946); Life With Father (1947); I Remember Mama (1948); Never a Dull Moment (1950); The Mudlark (1950); It Grows on Trees (1952).

Irene Dunne was born Irene Marie Dunn in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 20, 1898. Her paternal grandfather, of Irish descent, had been a builder of boats on the Ohio River; her father Joseph John Dunn was a supervisory inspector of steamships for the federal government; her mother Adelaide Hunt Dunn was a musician. Dunne was educated at the Loretta Academy, a private school in Louisville, before her father died when she was 11. Following his death, Adelaide and Irene moved in with her parents in Madison, Indiana. Realizing that her daughter had inherited her own musical talent, Adelaide saw to it that Irene studied violin and piano under private teachers, but it was soon clear that Irene's greatest talent lay in her voice. Her mother's fondest dream, then, was that her daughter become an opera singer, and, in fact, the young Irene earned her first salary singing in a church choir. She then went on to study for a year at a musical conservatory in Indianapolis after which she secured an appointment to teach music and art in a high school in East Chicago, Indiana. While en route by train to this job, Dunne read about a competition for a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College and disembarked at Chicago in order to enter. She won the competition and, with her scholarship, was able to study at the school for an entire year.

Leaving the Chicago Music College in 1919, Dunne secured a job in Atlanta singing Gilbert and Sullivan with a company of young singers from the Metropolitan Opera. Flushed with enthusiasm, she left for New York as soon as her season in Atlanta was over, hoping to be accepted at the Met. After failing an audition there, however, she added an e to her surname and turned to the legitimate stage, landing the lead in a touring company of the popular musical comedy Irene that had starred the French musical star Irene Bordoni in New York. Thereafter, Dunne appeared regularly in New York in straight plays such as The Clinging Vine (1922), Lollipop (1924), and The City Chap (1925), although she actively sought out singing roles as well, finding parts in minor musicals such as Sweetheart Time (1926) and She's My Baby with Clifton Webb and Beatrice Lillie (1928). In between plays, Dunne continued to take courses at the Chicago Musical College, graduating with honors in 1926. In 1927, she married Francis J. Griffin, a New York dentist, to whom she remained wed for 37 years until his death in 1965.

By 1929, Dunne was a recognized Broadway actress. That same year, after a chance encounter, the producer Florenz Ziegfeld, renowned for his eye for unusual beauty, engaged her to play the leading role of Magnolia in the touring company of his production of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein musical Show Boat, adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber . It was this tour that made Irene Dunne a stage star. For 72 weeks, she appeared in virtually every city in the eastern half of the country, receiving rave reviews from the critics and accolades from cheering audiences, especially in Chicago, where her appearance was a triumph that secured her a contract from RKO Studios. Thereafter, for the next 20 years, Irene Dunne appeared in one film after another—41 in all—never featured as less than a star and, in the course of her career, playing an astonishing variety of roles.

Her first film, Leathernecking, was an insignificant musical about a marine who poses as an officer to impress a Honolulu socialite, but the studio liked her performance and almost immediately cast her in the western Cimarron, another Ferber novel, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year and which has since been refilmed twice. Again, Dunne's performance, as an Oklahoma homesteader who ends as a congresswoman and who ages 50 years in the course of the film, showed that RKO had not gambled foolishly. Cimarron not only made her a film star but also secured her the first of her five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. She lost to Norma Shearer who had starred in The Divorcee. This was the era when silent films had just given way to talking pictures and Hollywood studios had a pressing need not only for actors who knew how to talk, but for singers who could perform in the rash of musicals ("all talking, all dancing, all singing") that were then being made.

Her next film, Symphony for Six Million, in which Dunne portrayed a handicapped woman, was undistinguished, but her performance in Back Street, based on the melodramatic novel of marital infidelity by Fannie Hurst , in which she played the role of mistress of a married man, established her as a serious actress. The film was an enormous popular success and broke the previous box-office record set by All Quiet on the Western Front in 1930.

Dunne followed her dramatic triumph in Back Street with several other tear-jerkers in 1932–33, and, as her reputation as one of the finest dramatic actresses in Hollywood grew, she was cast opposite some of the most popular leading actors of the day, co-starring with Joel McCrae in The Silver Cord (1932) as a woman who must struggle against a domineering mother-in-law to save her marriage, and with the new and extremely popular Robert Taylor in Magnificent Obsession (1935). This film about a young doctor who kills a man and blinds the man's wife in an automobile accident, and then becomes a great surgeon in order to heal her, was one of Irene Dunne's greatest successes.

But ever determined to avoid typecasting, Dunne continued to seek new challenges and was finally able to secure roles in two musicals, Sweet Adeline (1934) and Roberta (1935), although neither of these films added to her luster as a musical-comedy star. The film version of the Broadway musical Roberta was a celebration of the Paris world of haute couture, with its ritual fashion show climax so de rigeur in 1930s' movie musicals, and featured Dunne in the unlikely role of an expatriate Russian princess. Unfortunately, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers stole the film, even though it gave Dunne the opportunity to sing "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," one of the classic Broadway show tunes of the day. Dunne recouped, however, in 1936 with her stunning performance in the enormously popular film version of Show Boat. Widely considered to be the best of the three screen versions of this classic, this film proved that Irene Dunne was not only a fine actress but also an enchanting musical-comedy star and a gifted comedienne. Although some critics thought Dunne too mature for the part of Magnolia (she was then 38, claiming to be 34, and playing 21), audiences were captivated by her singing of "Make Believe" with Alan Jones.

During these early years in Hollywood, Dunne regularly commuted to New York between pictures to be with her husband, but, in 1936, Francis Griffin gave up his New York practice to join her in California, where they built a nine-room, French provincial home in Holmby Hills and adopted an infant daughter whom they named Mary Frances. At same time, her seven-year contract at RKO came to an end, and, through the shrewdness of her agent, Charles Feldman, Dunne pioneered the non-exclusive, three-year contract that enabled her to make one picture a year each for Paramount, Columbia, and RKO, an arrangement that struck the first blow to the traditional seven-year contract that had reduced film stars to indentured servants of the studio bosses. It was only after her release from exclusive contract to RKO and the start of her virtual freelancing that Dunne, now close to 40, saw her career begin to soar.

[Comedy] demands more timing, pace, shading and subtlety of emphasis. It is difficult to learn, but once it is acquired it can be easily slowed down and it becomes an excellent foundation for dramatic acting.

—Irene Dunne

The revelation of Dunne's comic talents came at a most opportune moment, for these were the years when Hollywood was perfecting a new genre of light screen entertainment that came to be known as "screwball comedy," a delightful concoction of foam and wit somewhere between standard comedy and farce, alongside of whose chief interpreters—Carole Lombard, Constance Bennett , or Myrna Loy for example—Dunne proved more than capable of holding her own. Originally, however, she had doubted her ability to handle a completely comic role and even went so far as to take a trip to Europe when the studio offered her Theodora Goes Wild (1937), hoping that someone else would have been cast in it by the time she returned. On the contrary, the studio had held the picture for her, and, against her better judgment, she undertook to make the best of it. The film, co-starring the popular Melvyn Douglas, a master at sophisticated comedy, was about a staid New England woman who, without her family knowing it, secretly writes a naughty book and then attempts to live up to the role thrust upon her after the book becomes a bestseller. In this film, Dunne turned out to have an instinctive comic flair of the type described as "captivating," "scintillating," and "sparkling" and Theodora Goes Wild was an instant success that earned her her second Oscar nomination. This time she lost to Luise Rainer who had portrayed Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld.

Nevertheless, Dunne had received such rave reviews for her talents as a comedienne, that she suddenly found herself switched from dramatic parts to comic ones and, after the largely forgotten High, Wide and Handsome (1937), was never given another musical role. Though already one of the most popular, most sought after, and most highly paid leading ladies in Hollywood, her popularity soared as she was cast in the smash hit The Awful Truth (1938) opposite Cary Grant. One of the most popular films of the decade, The Awful Truth dealt with a married couple who decide to divorce only to discover that they cannot live without each other, and garnered for Dunne her third Academy Award nomination. She again lost to Rainer for the latter's role as a Chinese wife in The Good Earth. Another comedy, the less successful Joy of Living with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., followed.

In 1939, Dunne returned to serious roles when she was co-starred with the popular French romantic lead, Charles Boyer, in the film Love Affair (which would be remade with Deborah Kerr as An Affair to Remember). The story of two people who fall in love aboard an ocean liner, Love Affair won Dunne a fourth Academy Award nomination, her second in a row, but this time she lost to Vivien Leigh , almost undefeatable as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. The chemistry between Dunne and Boyer was immediately appreciated by audiences everywhere, and the two were paired again the following year in When Tomorrow Comes. She then played yet another romantic role opposite Fred MacMurray in Invitation to Happiness (1939). This film was followed by a return to "screwball comedy," when she was again cast opposite Cary Grant in My Favorite Wife (1940) in which she played a woman lost in a shipwreck and thought dead, who suddenly returns to disrupt her husband's life. In years to come, Grant was to recall that Dunne had the best sense of timing of anyone he had ever worked with—and he had worked twice with Mae West who was legendary for her timing.

By 1940, Irene Dunne had had no less than 18 of her films open at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, then the most prestigious film theater in the country, an all-time record at that time. In 1941, she made yet another film with Grant, Penny Serenade, a sentimental drama that dealt with the woes and tribulations of a couple attempting to adopt a child, a story that touched a nerve with Dunne, who, unable to

conceive, had only recently gone through the adoption process. As in Magnificent Obsession and Love Affair, Dunne's performance raised the film above the cloying level that a film of this type could so easily have fallen to, and the critics and the public were both impressed.

For all her success as a dramatic actress and a comedienne, however, Dunne still hankered for a musical career. Unfortunately, with her lyric soprano voice, her talents would have been best served by operettas on the order of those dominated by Jeanette MacDonald but these, however, were giving way to the flashy period musicals best suited to Alice Faye and Betty Grable . Thus, after the undistinguished film Unfinished Business (1941), Irene Dunne took a brief sojourn from Hollywood to appear as a guest artist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1941–42). She returned to the screen to do the now-forgotten Lady in a Jam followed, however, by two wartime films that added significantly to her stature as an actress. A Guy Named Joe (1943) in which she played opposite the enormously popular Spencer Tracy, was a fantasy about love and death; The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) dealt with a woman whose life spanned both World Wars. Both films were typical of many produced in the mid-'40s, glittering as they were with all-star casts that featured, in the former, Van Johnson, Lionel Barrymore, and Esther Williams in one of her rare non-swimming roles, and in the latter, veteran comedian Frank Morgan and the youthful Roddy McDowall, Van Johnson and Peter Lawford. Both were box-office as well as critical successes.

After World War II, Dunne's career began to wane, but she still had three important films ahead of her that would add considerable luster to a brilliant film career. In 1946, she essayed the role of Anna Leonowens , opposite the English actor Rex Harrison, in the film version of the novel Anna and the King of Siam. Based on the true story of a Welsh schoolmarm who, in the 1860s journeys to the court of Siam, now Thailand, to serve as governess to the king's horde of children, the film later served as the inspiration for the Broadway and Hollywood musical extravaganza, The King and I. Then in 1947, Dunne shrewdly chose to play the role of a middle-aged Norwegian immigrant mother in I Remember Mama, the film version of the extremely successful play that had starred Mady Christians on Broadway. A story, written by Kathryn McLean , set at the turn of the century and filled with warmth and gentle humor, the film version stands as one of the most memorable testimonies to Irene Dunne's skill as a dramatic actress. With no big scenes or opportunities for histrionics, Dunne's basic talent and her long years of mastering her craft came together to enable her to bring an integrity to the interpretation of the role that was outstanding for its sincerity and lack of artifice. It was a tribute to Dunne that, even though she did not win this, her fifth Academy Award nomination (it went to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda), the industry to which she had devoted herself for almost 20 years at least recognized and appreciated the quiet triumph that she had achieved. Finally, in 1948, Dunne starred as the wife of William Powell in the film version of Life With Father, a role that had been created by Dorothy Stickney on Broadway not long before.

The same year, 1948, Irene Dunne reprised several of her famous roles for "The Lux Radio Theater," one of the prestige radio programs of the day, later becoming host for the "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars," another program with a similar format. In the 1950s, she tried television but, ever conscious of her image, made occasional appearances only on the more distinguished dramatic programs such as "Ford Theater," "The Playhouse of Stars," "The Loretta Young Show," "The June Allyson Show," and the "General Electric Theater."

McLean, Kathryn (1909–1966)

American author and short story writer. Name variations: Kathryn Forbes. Born in San Francisco, California, on March 10, 1909; died on May 15, 1966; daughter of Leon Ellis and Della (Jesser) Anderson; graduated Mount View High School in San Francisco; married Robert McLean (a contractor), in 1926 (divorced, May 1946); children: Robert, Jr., and Richard.

Under the pseudonym Kathryn Forbes, Kathryn McLean wrote her semi-autobiographical Mama's Bank Account. With gentle humor, the episodic book centers around her Norwegian-American family stretching their earnings to pay expenses in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. Dramatized by John Van Druten as I Remember Mama, it was produced by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for Broadway in 1944. The story also evolved into a highly popular television series, produced by CBS from 1949 to 1957, starring Peggy Wood and childstar-turned-feminist Robin Morgan .

suggested reading:

Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1944 and 1966.

Through her willingness to play parts suited to a woman of her advancing age (aided by her youthful appearance and the discreet and regular reassignment of her birth year), Dunne was able to prolong her career until she was well into her 50s. In 1950, she appeared as Queen Victoria in The Mudlark opposite the English actor Alec Guinness, and was teamed once more with Fred MacMurray in Never a Dull Moment. After her last film, however, It Grows on Trees (1952), Dunne retired from films on her own initiative, and, except for an occasional appearance on television, her acting career came to a close.

A devout Roman Catholic, Irene Dunne steered clear of both the more glamorous and the less savory aspects of Hollywood life, devoting herself to her family and to her philanthropic work, especially to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, her pet charity. At home, she lived as Mrs. Griffith, her only concession to her status as a film star being her resolve never to be seen unless she was looking her best. A woman with a canny clothes sense, she was known for her poise and dignified bearing, was regarded as one of the best dressed women in Hollywood, and was always among the few actresses whose names were considered for the title "first lady of the screen." A staunchly conservative Republican, she became increasingly active in party affairs once her film career came to an end and in 1957–58 was appointed by President Dwight Eisenhower to serve as alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In 1965, she was invited to serve on the board of directors of Technicolor, Inc. Although an Academy Award may have eluded her, Dunne was honored for her life's work by the American Film Institute at its tenth anniversary celebration in 1977. Her last public appearance was at the Kennedy Center Honors held in Washington, D.C., in December 1985, when she was to be saluted for her life's achievement along with the comedian Bob Hope, the opera singer Beverly Sills and the composer Alan Jay Lerner. Unfortunately, Dunne collapsed after the group photographic session and thus became the first honors recipient to miss taking part in the televised gala that followed the next evening. She died of heart failure in Hollywood on September 4, 1991, at age 91.

Irene Dunne was one of the most enduring and versatile stars of the motion picture during the period that has come to be known as the "Golden Age" of Hollywood. Whether in serious drama, which she always preferred, musical, screwball, or light comedy, historical dramas, or what were then known as "women's pictures," she seemed to have no difficulty in producing whatever was required of her by her directors. A tribute to her shrewdness at selecting her scripts can be seen by how many of them were remade as vehicles for others: Love Affair in the '50s with Deborah Kerr , Cimarron with Maria Schell , The Awful Truth and Magnificent Obsession with Jane Wyman, and Show Boat and Roberta with Kathryn Grayson . Back Street was remade twice, first with Margaret Sullivan and then with Susan Hayward ; Steven Spielberg's film Always was a remake of A Guy Named Joe. As a dramatic actress, she was noted for the sincerity that she brought to her roles, carefully cultivating the natural catch in her voice to convey the most varied emotions in a subtle way that was highly effective. As a comedienne, it was the interplay between her innate dignity and her inner sense of fun that made her so deliciously funny in "screwball" roles: "Can you imagine Irene Dunne doing this?" was all part of the joke.

Never a great beauty even in her youth, Dunne was nevertheless a pretty girl with warm brown eyes, light brown hair and a dazzling smile, who matured into a handsome woman. As the years advanced after her retirement, however, she held her age less well than such contemporaries as Loretta Young and Claudette Colbert and, unwilling to destroy the public's memory of her on screen, declined an opportunity to appear in a photographic tribute to legendary screen actresses offered to her by Life magazine. Although her passing created far less stir than did those of some her contemporaries, this was due in part to the fact that she really retired long before she had to but also to her desire for privacy and her lack of public flamboyance. Her position in the history of the first 25 years of talking films is, however, firmly secure. A tribute to her uniqueness as an actress was offered by James Waters, who wrote in The New York Times on September 20, 1990: "Imagine Claudette Colbert as Queen Victoria in The Mudlark or Joan Crawford doing I Remember Mama or Jean Arthur in Show Boat. And while Constance Bennett, Carole Lombard or Myrna Loy might have molded nicely into The Awful Truth or Theodora Goes Wild, aren't we glad they didn't?"


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945.

Free Library of Philadelphia, Theater Collection.

The International Dictionary of Films and Filmakers, Vol. III, Actors and Actresses.

Waters, James. "Irene Dunne: No Oscar, Just Love," in The New York Times. September 20, 1990.

Robert Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey