Today we reminisce about
* Published specifically for The 2nd Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema, Samantha at Musings of a Classic Film Addict & Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Hollywood *
As a dedicated fan of Classic Film, I am always on the lookout for ways to expand my knowledge and get really excited about discovering new films. Since there is a huge array of stars as well as a seemingly endless plethora of films out there, it is sometimes hard to know in which direction to go. Until recently, I have often stuck to “tried and true” favourites and branched out slowly from there. It was not until I started writing about film that I began to be more sporadic and random in my habits. (This can sometimes be a challenge because I live in Europe and I do not have access to cable or streaming services where I currently live.) Believe it or not, I had not seen one Irene Dunne picture before starting this project. I had heard a lot about her over the years and even owned a couple of films with her that I had not yet watched. For some inexplicable reason I felt as if I were not ready to take the detour in order to get to know her. So when this Blogathon was announced, I knew that it was either now or never. I am very happy to report that I do not regret my decision one bit and thoroughly enjoyed my self-made Irene marathon and honestly, it is slightly bittersweet to have it come to an end.
“I’m like Mickey Mantle: I stopped when my batting average was ahead.” – 1979 interview
Irene was always very poised and immaculately presentable both on-screen and off, giving the impression that she was well educated and that she came from a prosperous background. While the latter may not exactly be the case, Irene was raised in a loving home that instilled devout values of the Roman Catholic faith. She grew up with a love of music, attaining a secondary education degree and hoping to make it as an opera singer which, in her own words, she “did not have the pipes for”. It was never her dream to come to Hollywood but as chance would have it, she was spotted by someone from RKO in 1929 while performing in Show Boat and promptly signed to a contract. Her career grew steadily throughout the early 1930’s. She found that romantic comedy was not as satisfying as drama though being comedic came naturally to her. Cary Grant was her favourite on-screen partner and Irene was known to say that Penny Serenade was the best film they did together.
During the first few movies in which I saw her, Irene reminded me a great deal of Deborah Kerr and Greer Garson in regard to both looks and personality. She had similar facial features to Kerr and Garson and sometimes had her hair coloured in a shade of red. I find that Irene had untraditional beauty for a screen actress though she was far more refined than the girl-next-door. There was something very ethereal about her and the roles she played seemed to largely reflect who she was in private life. Irene was free of scandal and stayed married to the same man for 38 years until his death. Although her life was not colourful, as some would call it, she was at peace with herself and with her career that ended after 22 years in Hollywood. In reality, Irene could have kept working but she decided to do things differently, retreating into her personal life and making relatively few public appearances thereafter though she was always cherished by her colleagues, friends, family, and fans.
5 Academy Award nominations for Best Actress:
Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), I Remember Mama (1948)
The key to a successful on-screen coupling is having the right partner. Irene was paired with a variety of leading men during her career with some of these pairings becoming so popular that they appeared together in multiple films. It is generally shown that the most memorable of these leading men was Cary Grant, undoubtedly for The Awful Truth, and in real life the two had much mutual admiration for one another. Personally, I do not disagree with this idea and really enjoyed witnessing their comedic dynamic. Overall, however, I would have to say that my preferred Irene Dunne leading man is Charles Boyer. They were very much at ease with each other both on- and off-set, having a natural chemistry that just made a whole lot of sense.
Here is a list of Irene’s most prominent leading men and the films in which they appeared with one another:
Charles Boyer – Love Affair (1939), When Tomorrow Comes (1939), Together Again (1944)
Cary Grant – The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), Penny Serenade (1941)
Randolph Scott – Roberta (1935), My Favorite Wife (1940), High, Wide, and Handsome (1937)
Ralph Bellamy – The Awful Truth (1937), Lady in a Jam (1942)
John Boles – Back Street (1932), The Age of Innocence (1934)
Fred MacMurray* – Invitation to Happiness (1939), Never a Dull Moment (1950)
* They also worked together on a radio series aptly called The Irene Dunne-Fred MacMurray Show, sometimes also referred to Bright Star. They made 52 30-minute episodes from 1952-1953. For more information, please visit Citizen Screen’s article.
Irene worked with some of the most celebrated directors in cinema, many of them on several different occasions. Her personal favourites were Leo McCarey and George Stevens.
5 Films: The Silver Cord (1933), Ann Vickers (1933), This Man is Mine (1934) & Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
3 Films: Back Street (1932), Magnificent Obsession (1935), When Tomorrow Comes (1939)
Leo McCarey – The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939)
George Stevens – Penny Serenade (1941), I Remember Mama (1948)
James Whale – Showboat (1936)
Victor Fleming – A Guy Named Joe (1943)
Charles Vidor – Together Again (1944)
For this project, I watched 11 films and 3 television specials
Back Street (1932)
Ray Schmidt (Dunne) is a zesty young woman who loves life as well as her independence. She does not want to be tied down by marriage until she meets the true love of her life. By happenstance, Walter Saxel (John Boles) enters her life and the two fall for each other. The trouble is that Walter is already engaged and Ray eventually misses a chance to be introduced to Walter’s mother in the hopes of persuading her to approve of him marrying Ray instead. Five years after their last meeting, they meet quite unexpectedly in New York where they both live and work. Walter is married with children and Ray is still single. They cannot deny their passion for one another and start a long affair. Walter sets Ray up in an apartment and they spend as much time together as possible without it becoming overly obvious to outside parties. Their relationship lasts for 25 years.
This is the only pre-Code film of Irene’s that I viewed and it did not disappoint in the aspect that the story does not hold back on showing frank emotions in difficult situations. It dared to challenge the dissatisfaction of arranged marriages and the snobbery of upper social classes. The one major flaw of this film is that it is decidedly less complimentary towards female empowerment because Ray fills more of a subservient role in the latter part of the film (although no one forced her to do so). She was doing well as a single woman, holding a good job and making a very good living, giving it up to be a long-term mistress who remains incredibly understanding with and attentive to her lover all the while not profiting from the fact that he is filthy rich. The film’s ending gave me the impression of being hit in the gut and it honestly affected me for quite a few hours afterwards. Still, Irene’s performance is wonderful, making me want to seek out more of her pre-Code titles.
The Roberta gown shop is one of the most fashionable clothing stores in Paris and unknown to most people, Stephanie (Dunne) has been doing most of the designs for the past few years since Roberta, the founder, has suffered ill health. Robert’s nephew, John (Randolph Scott), comes to town with his band and he and Stephanie are immediately drawn to one another. One of the members of the band is Huck (Fred Astaire) who recognises his childhood sweetheart, Lizzie (Ginger Rogers), a now-famous Cabaret singer who falsely poses as “Countess Scharwenka” in order to keep a job in the demanding City of Lights. After Roberta passes away, all of them work together to keep the store thriving all the while living through a bit of drama in between.
This was the third pairing of the famed dancing duo of Astaire-Rogers yet it was still early enough in their collaborations for Irene to get first billing. This was probably based on her marquee value at the time because her role in unfortunately no more prominent than anyone else’s. She is truly beautiful in this film, wearing designer clothing and looking very classy. Her romance with Randolph Scott is very believable and she has particularly good scenes with actress Helen Westley who plays Roberta, showing a heartfelt dynamic that resembles a true mother-daughter relationship.
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Theodora (Dunne) lives in a sleepy, small Connecticut town with old-fashioned values. She lives with her two much older spinster aunts who socialise almost uniquely with other women like themselves. On the outside, Theodora seems as straight-laced as them but she has a secret that would create a huge scandal if anyone were to find out. She has authored an “indecent” book under the penname “Caroline Adams” and her real identity has been discovered by Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas), who takes a fancy to her. After a wild, boozy night in New York, Michael tracks her down at home and starts causing havoc in her life in the hopes that she can live her life as freely as Caroline Adams. Similarly, Theodora wishes to bring the same freedom to Michael who is trapped in a marriage arranged solely for the purpose of appearances.
This film marks the first time that Irene was presented to audiences in a slapstick-style comedy, a move that earned her a second Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. I happened to watch this film first and I was immediately enchanted with both Irene as well as the delightful story. She had absolutely marvellous chemistry with Melvyn Douglas, whose dry sense of humour suited her to complete perfection. In fact, Melvyn is second only to Charles Boyer in being her best on-screen better half, and it is truly surprising that they did not star in more films together.
The Awful Truth (1937)
The Warriners are generally a happy married couple who give the appearance of being a hard-working husband and a humbled, satisfied housewife. Or, so it would seem. Lucy (Dunne) lives her own life on the side and Jerry (Cary Grant) goes about his own business, thinking that a wife does not need to know more than she does. When the two mutually suspect one another of wrongdoings, including infidelity, they promptly seek a divorce much to the chagrin of their family, friends, and even the judge. The divorce decree is not immediate and during the time before it is finalised, both Lucy and Jerry enter new relationships even though both still have feelings for one another. Before these two can be reunited, some crazy antics occur that are filled with laughter and sweet justice.
It is this film that really solidified Irene’s status as a comedienne and it is amongst her best known works. The same could be said about Cary Grant who showed his capacity to excel in screwball comedy, being cast the very next year in one of his most popular films, Bringing Up Baby. In some ways, Irene reminds me a bit of Katharine Hepburn especially in the way she laughs. It makes me wonder if Ms. Hepburn did not take borrow from Irene’s style in Baby, which was her first crack at screwball comedy.
Leo McCarey’s film is historically notorious in the cinematic world for having been a very loosely constructed project during filming. Much of the dialogue was written just before filming took place and scenes were often done in one take to preserve spontaneity. McCarey offered very little direction to his top three stars who were perplexed about the picture, not really understanding their roles or the film as a whole which resulted in them being considerably underwhelmed by the entire experience. It was a grand surprise for everyone, even to the studio, that the film turned out to be a big hit that is still cherished to this day.
Love Affair (1939)
While travelling on the same transatlantic cruise, Terry McKay (Dunne) has a meet-cute with famous French painter Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) that quickly turns from a buddy friendship to a full-fledged romance. Since the both of them are already engaged to other people, it would be unwise for them to create a scandal so they decide to meet in 6 months at the top of the Empire State Building. By that time, they would have been able to respectfully end their unions and prepare for a life together. When the moment comes to be reunited, Michel is awaiting Terry when – unbeknownst to him – she is struck by a vehicle on her way to the building. She refuses to send word to Michel about her condition, so he is left believing that she stood him up so he returns to Paris. In the meantime, Terry is left confined to a wheelchair unable to walk, continuing to hide her true condition from Michel when they meet again face-to-face.
This is one of Irene’s hallmark films, undoubtedly aided by the popularity of the 1957 remake An Affair to Remember starring her good pal Cary Grant. Her performance is beautiful and the true loveliness of her character comes out in the scenes when Terry and Michel are visiting his grandmother in Madeira. Unlike the remake, the male lead is not such an obvious womaniser so their companionship can be more easily believed as platonic in the beginning. The one thing that I really like about Irene and Charles Boyer’s chemistry is that you can tell that they enjoyed being in each other’s presence. It is such a shame that the rights for this film fell into the public domain because the copies that exist are rather poor in quality. I own this film as a part of a large RKO box collection and even that version is very flawed. This is a film that deserves a restoration.
Invitation to Happiness (1939)
Eleanor Wayne (Dunne) oversees the finances of her wealthy father due to his sometimes irrational spending habits. His latest idea is to invest in heavyweight boxer Albert ‘King’ Cole (Fred MacMurray), a talented young fighter who shows the potential of someday being world champion. When Eleanor and Albert meet for the first time, the results are less than desirable but something happens to her that makes it impossible to get him out of her head. Before long, the two are married with a baby on the way. The trouble is that Albert still needs to train and as a result, spends lengthy periods of time away from home. His son is enrolled in a military academy and largely grows up estranged from his father, who he considers a stranger. With mounting pressure to focus on his career and to simultaneously cater to his family’s needs/desires, it all becomes too much and the couple split up. Will there be time to salvage their broken relationships or is Albert’s career more important?
The title of this film would suggest a more positive overall story though in actuality, the second half of the film is quite serious in dealing with separation and child custody. I have not seen many films from this time that touch upon the subject of guardianship so it was quite interesting to see how the plot unfolded. Moreover, all three parties involved – mother, father and son – get a chance to express their feelings about what is happening. It was interesting to see Irene with Fred MacMurray and while I did not really care for their romantic pairing, they worked well together.
Penny Serenade (1941)
A young couple, Julie and Roger Adams (Dunne and Cary Grant), goes through the misfortune of a tragically ending pregnancy and subsequent infertility, hoping to eventually adopt a child. Their path is not easy financially; something that threatens their ability to finalise the adoption after they eventually have a baby girl placed with them. They eventually gain full legal custody of her and live tranquilly as a happy family until tragedy once again strikes them.
This is a very powerful, unforgettable melodrama. Although there are some upbeat moments in the film, it is overall very sombre and the chances of you crying throughout and/or at the end are quite substantial. This role meant a lot to Irene because she had adopted a child in real life and brought a lot of the emotion from her own experience to her character. I could not help but to get a sad vibe from her portrayal, even from the very beginning when Julie and Roger are courting. Her performance was more than adequate but I did not really prefer her in such hard-hitting drama and felt that her dynamic with Cary Grant was much less appeasing in this genre. Grant certainly profited the most from his appearance in the film as it helped to solidify his mainstay as a dramatic actor. The scene between him and the judge was very poignant.
I saw some similarities between this film and The Five Pennies (1959) with Danny Kaye and Barbara Bel Geddes.
Together Again (1944)
Widow Anne Crandall (Dunne) is the mayor of Brookhaven, Vermont, which is a position that she assumed after the untimely death of her husband who originally occupied the post. Since his passing, she has spent the majority of her free time tending to political matters and has effectively neglected her own personal life. One day, a statue of her husband is struck by lightning and the head falls off, prompting Anne goes to New York City to seek the services of sculptor George Corday (Charles Boyer). She wishes to have a new statue made, something which worries her father-in-law (Charles Coburn) who believes that the initial statue getting struck was a sign from his late son to get Anne to change her ways. While in New York, Anne gets into a bit of trouble at a nightclub with George and ends up getting arrested for indecent exposure. Once released, she quickly comes back home and pretends as if nothing happened. However, George tracks her down and insists on staying to work on the statue, using her arrest as blackmail against her. In truth, George and Anne are attracted to one another though Anne resists her feelings because she has promised her teenage daughter Diana that she would never remarry. One of the high jinks is a “love rectangle” between George & Anne, George & Diana, Diana & her boyfriend Gilbert, and Gilbert & Anne. Will George and Anne ever make a go of their relationship?
This was easily one of the most enjoyable films that I watched and was so funny that it had me laughing out loud on several occasions. Irene and Charles Boyer were particularly funny during her first visit to New York and during the misunderstanding with the youngsters. Who knew that Boyer could have such a delicious sense of humour? The cherry on the top of the cake was the magnificent Charles Coburn, who provided many laughs and an immeasurable amount of wit. He was indeed a grand comedic actor.
Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
In mid-19th century Thailand, British citizen Anna Owens (Dunne) arrives with her young son to set up a school where she will teach King Monghut’s (Rex Harrison) 67 children and multiple wives. Her arrival at the palace is hindered by a lengthy wait in meeting the King and not having the housing arrangement which she was promised. Anna proves to have a fiery temperament and fights back at the King’s insensitive behaviour, something which gradually earns his respect because it shows that she will tell him the truth rather than just tell him something that he wants to hear. They collaborate together to help open the country to foreign nations and to the world as a whole, showing that Siam can be a hospital place with an understanding King.
Irene appeared in quite a few timepiece films in her later career and proved to be well-suited to them as she held herself with the posture and grace expected of women from those periods. Her dresses and petticoats are beautifully made and are also very ample. Several times she had to lie on the ground so that he head would not be higher than the King’s and she managed to do so with relative ease which must not have been so easy a task. She and Rex Harrison shared no romantic scenes though their characters grew close to one another in a certain sense. Harrison, taking a page out of Peter O’Toole’s book, performs like an unpleasant and loud guard dog which can get annoying at times. This was his first part in an American film and the year after he appeared in one of his most beloved roles as Captain Daniel Gregg in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir opposite Gene Tierney. This is not a stellar film though it has some very good moments.
Life with Father (1947)
In late 19th century New York City, the Day family lives through the trials of life all the while trying to appease their overly demanding patriarch. Vinnie (Dunne) and Clarence Sr. (William Powell) have four sons together and are happily married despite Clarence being rather moody and difficult to please. He is also very frugal with the family’s money although they are quite well off in part due to his successful Wall Street job. While Vinnie is fervently religious and raises the children in that same light, Clarence is fully against organised religion despite the fact that he regularly attends church. During a visit with Vinnie’s cousin Clara (ZaSu Pitts) and guest Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor), it is discovered that Clarence has not ever been baptised. This sits poorly with Vinnie who wishes for her family to be reunited in the Kingdom of Heaven. Clarence vigorously fights their attempts at arraigning a baptism.
Much like her feelings on Penny Serenade, it is likely that this film meant something special to Irene due to the character of Vinnie being a devout Christian. Irene was very pious and took communion on a daily basis, much like her good friend Loretta Young. There are definitely times when it is the real Irene speaking about religious matters. I found her to have a very natural maternal instinct with the children which helped greatly in moulding the family together because Clarence was really so unbearable most of the time. It was very interesting to see Irene coupled with William Powell.
It Grows on Trees (1952)
The Baxter household is a happy one though money is always tight and budgeting becomes a literal obsession. Mother Polly (Dunne) does her best though she does give-in to temptation, sometimes buying what husband Philip (Dean Jagger) considers unnecessary items. One of these purchases is two trees of unidentifiable origin that she bought from her gardener. It so happens that on several occasions when the Baxter’s are talking about their money woes, money magically appears to them in the form of 5 and 10 dollar bills. Philip is uneasy about taking the money though Polly thinks that it’s divine intervention. She soon discovers that the money comes from the mystery trees and starts harvesting a “money crop”, storing the bills in large tins. While Philip is away on a business trip, she has the house re-done inside and out and pays for many other expenses. When she tries to tell Philip about the trees, he has a hard time believing her especially when she claims to have received permission from the government to use the money. Chaos ensues when the money is identified as a forgery by a local bank.
This film is a part of the fantasy genre for obvious reasons though who has not dreamed that a tree like this could actually exist? In no way was the integrity of this film belittled by the subject matter. It is very entertaining and well-acted with Irene putting on a great performance as a loving mother and wife who is sometimes considered to be a little zany by her often grumpy husband. I did like her and Dean Jagger together and found this to be a great end to her film career. This was the last feature film in which Irene would appear.
The Jack Benny Show
“The Irene Dunne Show”, aired 2 December 1953
Jack mistakenly believes that Irene wants him to audition for the lead in her new film and he shows up uninvited to her home. His ensuing annoying, adverse effects caused by him always being in the way infuriate everyone, leading the director and everyone else involved to end up walking off the project.
In usual Jack Benny style, his antics are hilarious and he does a good job of getting under the skin of his hosts! One of his ongoing gags in this episode is to crack chestnuts at the most inopportune of moments. Irene and guest star Vincent Price do their best to keep a straight face in the midst of this madness and it was a lot of fun catching this episode.
Ford Television Theatre
“Sheila”, S07E34 aired 24 May 1956
Sheila Chester is the headmistress at a private East Coast boarding school where her daughter, Casey, and Lara, the daughter of her beau, are enrolled. Lara is prone to social deviancy as a way to act against her father who has largely been absent from her life. Since her mother died whilst giving birth, Lara is also without a positive female role model. When Casey gets involved in a scheme covering for Lara during a nocturnal outing with her boyfriend, Sheila feels like she has failed and decides to quit her post in order to improve her own home life. Seeing this, Lara must decide to change for both Sheila and her father’s happiness.
These 25-30 minute episodes are a pure delight and some of the stories are really well done. The acting in this was just fine though the storyline was slightly cheesy at moments, exposing the fragility of “perfect” 1950’s morals and behaviours. Irene was a bit too prim and proper in this for my taste but considering the time, I do not believe she could have done it any differently. All the same, it is an enjoyable episode and the young players are the true stars.
General Electric Theater
“Go Fight City Hall”, S10E19 aired 15 October 1962
Margaret Henderson (Dunne) plays a widowed woman who runs for city council when she realises that nothing is going to be done about certain problems, some of which that have been lingering for quite some time. Her political opponent (Allyn Joslyn) attempts to uncover any cracks in her path and turn them into a scandal but his plan ends up working against him.
This episode is much better balanced than her preceding appearance on Ford Television Theatre and shows just how natural she was at handling dramatic roles. Irene takes front and centre stage without overpowering the other actors with whom she shares the screen.