James Dunn (1901-1967) is a beloved figure in the annals of show business.
The son of a Wall Street stockbroker, Dunn only briefly followed in his father’s footsteps before going into work that suited him much better: vaudeville. This led naturally to several Vitaphone shorts in 1929 and 1930: In the Nick of Time, The Song Plugger, Barefoot Days, The Varsity Show, and Tom Thumbs Down. And from here to features. His best remembered early work was in four Shirley Temple pictures for Fox in 1934: Stand Up and Cheer, Baby Take a Bow, Change of Heart and Bright Eyes. But he’d also made an impression in such dramas as Bad Girl (1931), Society Girl (1932), and Hello Sister (1933). He starred opposite Alice Faye in George White’s 1935 Scandals. But an affection for the bottle had him relegated to B pictures by the late 1930s.
Then in 1945, a stroke of genius and a bit of stunt casting. Elia Kazan took a chance on him in the role of the alcoholic, irresponsible father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a part that played on the public’s memory of his parts he’d played throughout his Hollywood career (as well as his real life), with more serious overtones. Dunn hit a home run and won a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his efforts.
Unfortunately, this fleeting success did not revive his flagging career. His last starring role was his next one, in That Brennan Girl a.k.a. Tough Girl (1946). A handful of supporting parts followed, most notably The Bramble Bush (1960), although he did work frequently in television through the 1960s. From 1954 through 1956 he was a regular on It’s a Great Life with Frances Bavier (best remembered as Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show). His last credit was the posthumously released TV movie Shadow Over Elveron (1968).
To learn more about vaudeville, where Jimmy Dunn got his start, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.