Irene Dunne: Classy Lassie

We pause now to appreciate the lovely, luminous silver screen star Irene Dunne (1898-1990).

When we remember Dunne as Magnolia in the 1936 version of Show Boat, it feels significant to learn that her father had been a steamboat inspector, and she grew up in the river port towns of Louisville, St. Louis, and Madison (Indiana). Like Jimmy Dunn, she was Irish Catholic (on her father’s side) and though no apparent relation, her family spelled it the same way. The silent “e” was added to her name by presumptious press agents, and she simply kept it after awhile.

Dunne’s father died when she 14. Her mother, who was German-American, was a concert pianist and music teacher. At her hands, Irene learned to play and sing. She auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera a couple of times, but was not accepted, so she went into musical comedy. It is odd that Hollywood seldom made use of her musical skills. Roberta (1935) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is her best known musical film, out of only a handful. She spent the entire decade of the 1920s on Broadway, first as a replacement in the fortuitously titled Irene (1920-21) with Hobart Cavanaugh, Eva Puck, Florence Mills, and Jeanette MacDonald. This was followed by roles in The Clinging Vine (1922-23), Yours Truly (1927), She’s My Baby (1928), and Luckee Girl (1928).

Dunne was starring as Magnolia in the road tour of Show Boat, when Flo Ziegfeld brought her to the attention of RKO who cast her as the female lead in the semi-musical Leathernecking (1930), with Eddie Foy Jr, Ken Murray, Louise Fazenda, Ned Sparks, Lilyan Tashman, Benny Rubin, and Rita La Roy. She then went on to star in the original 1931 screen version of the western epic Cimarron, which like Show Boat, had been an Edna Ferber bestseller. She was cast opposite former silent star Richard Dix and eclipsed him. In many of her early pre-code films she was surrounded by silent stars like Lowell Sherman, Adolphe Menjou, Ricardo Cortez, John Boles, etc, next to whom, by contrast, she seemed fresh and new — the future. Other early pictures included the title role in the 1933 adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ Ann Vickers, the Kangaroo western Stingaree (1934), and the screen version of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1934).

with Cary Grant

Dunne’s best career years were prior to the Second World War. She was in the original 1935 version of the melodrama Magnificent Obsession, opposite Robert Taylor. With Cary Grant she co-starred in Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940) and George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941). McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) was the first of three pairings of Dunne with Charles Boyer. She starred in the 1937 musical High Wide and Handsome opposite Randolph Scott, who’d also been in Roberta.

An oddly fetishly look

Dunne’s post-war roles included the female leads in Anna and the King of Siam (1946, the play which became the basis for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I), Life with Father (1947), and George Steven’s I Remember Mama (1948). Dunne’s stately, dignified beauty and poise served her well in these mature roles. She took a risk in playing Queen Victoria (under prosthetics) in Nunnally Johnson’s The Mudlark (1950), but the gambit was not well recieved. Her last film role was in the peculiar 1952 fantasy comedy It Grows on Trees.

The balance of Dunne’s career was spent in television. She hosted Schlitz Playhouse in 1952 and appeared on Ford Television Theatre and The Jack Benny Program before taking time out to serve in a diplomatic capacity with the United Nations for the Eisenhower Administration for a few years. She was a Republican, you see, After this she returned to small screen to appear on things like Insight (1962, in an episode entitled “Beelzebub and the Bolsheviks”) and General Electric Theatre with Ronald Reagan. After this, retirement, and work with many charitable causes. She was 91 when she passed away. Clean living!

For more on show business history please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous