Saturday, October 1, 2011

Irene Dunne: Delightful, Delicious and No Distress

Eleventh in a series about strong women in film. Strong women are independent, beautiful, sexy, feminine and just want everything in life that a man wants and believe that they have every right to have it!

There must be something in the air these days. A year ago, Irene Dunne's name was barely mentioned. Suddenly, she seems to be everywhere and everyone is once again in love with Irene. And that is as it should be. Sometimes, the universe does get it right.

Irene Dunne was a star in an era of great women stars. She excelled in musicals, weepies and screwball comedies. She could certainly hold her own against the greatest of the era (Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, Katharine Hepburn), but there was something slightly more mature about Irene (she was a tad older than the rest, but I'm not referring to chronological age). She could be silly, but she never seemed the Damsel in Distress. No matter what the situation, Irene always seemed to be able to handle it herself. If she let a man intervene, well, it was because she wanted it that way.
The way she talked was the single strongest impression I have to this actress - not her poise, her charm, her delivery or her warm appeal in a specific role. The tip of her tongue pressed ever so lightly behind her teeth, which automatically dimpled her cheeks and caused her to arch her eyebrows, not in any exaggerated manner but just enough to transform her whole face into the most beguiling girlish sauciness that endeared her to every member of the audience, men and women alike and children, too. One heard it even as one saw it. Laughter was invariable. One would succumb. It was inexpressibly endearing.-John Kobal, People Will Talk (1985)
This was as good a quote as I find about the very special way Irene spoke. I confess I have watched her hundreds of times and just can't figure out how she does it! But, I guess that what makes her magical and like no one else.
1936's "Show Boat" - What a cast: Irene Dunne,
Paul Robeson, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan
Irene got her start in stage musicals and was brought to Hollywood after staring in a road version of Show Boat. Her debut film, 1930's "Leathernecking", wasn't much, but her next film, "Cimarron", put her on the map to stay. Irene became the queen of the "weepies," dramatic films that appealed to a female audience. She had hit after hit in such films as "Back Street", "The Silver Cord", "If I Were Free," and "The Age of Innocence". Said Irene: "Heavy dramatic roles are essential for an actress of my type. I know definitely that the status that I have achieved has been achieved through tears. So, for my career, I cry." 

With her lovely operetta-style voice, Irene always seemed to be a Jerome Kern gal. Besides her success in such musical films as "Show Boat" (her Magnolia is my favorite) and "High Wide and Handsome," Irene also famously appeared, along with Astaire and Rogers, in "Roberta." Although she sang the lovely Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, (a song that was always associated with her and played when she entered restaurants throughout her life), she was especially pleased that Kern wrote a song just for her in the movie version of the Broadway show. It was one she sang to perfection and one that described her perfectly: Lovely to Look At.

As if all of this wasn't enough, she finally dipped her dainty toes into comedy, starting with 1936's "Theodora Goes Wild", and that, as they say, was that. As the small town girl who writes a racy novel, she proved that her comedic talents were of the highest order.
One of the more civilized women. She's a dream, an absolute dream, one of the most professional women I've ever known. Nothing is instinctive, everything she does is carefully thought out, she knows every movement, every intonation, every nuance. She's a first-class crafts-woman. Her hours are like office hours, she's never late, she never slips, but instead of being dull and perfect, she's absolutely enchanting and perfect."- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Irene's co-star in "The Joy of Living"
Everyone, it seemed, loved Irene. It is well known that she was Cary Grant's favorite co-star. They were brilliant together in the wonderful comedies "My Favorite Wife" and "The Awful Truth," as well as in the heartbreaking drama, "Penny Serenade." Watching them together, they were perfectly complementary. Both are exceedingly clever without tremendous ego. They share, they spar and they support one another beautifully. So adult, don't you think?

One last Word - Irene in Furs

Irene never considered herself a fashion plate and allegedly did not enjoy posing for portraits, but she had a kind of effortless American elegance that always looked "just right." Irene seemed to wear an awful lot of furs in her films and, in the unenlightened age before faux, she carried if off with great aplomb. No European Glamour with a capitol "G," just good old American good taste, clean lines and Movie Star grace. 

Throughout her film career spanning from 1930 to her last film ("It Grows on Trees") in 1952, Irene Dunne displayed a vision of women as suffering, giddy, dignified, delightful and always competent and in command of their inner strength. In real life, she was married to the same man for 37 years until his death, was never part of any scandal and devoted herself to good works after her retirement from the screen. Irene Dunne was a team player (almost always the team ace, by the way), never hogging the spotlight or overshadowing her teammates. Her great gallery of performances speak of not just talent, but of wit, strength and intelligence.

Aren't as familiar with Irene Dunne as you'd like to be? These are my top baker's dozen  "Dunnies." 

1. The Awful Truth: 1937: Irene and Cary Grant at their very best (and that's saying an awful lot). Very, very funny.
2. My Favorite Wife: 1940: Irene and Cary Grant again. Again, very, very funny. 
3. Penny Serenade: 1940: The third part of the Irene Dunne/Cary Grant trifecta, only this time an emotional story of a marriage. Hankies required.
4. I Remember Mama: 1948: She's the mama that everyone wants. Touching, moving and memorable.
5. Show Boat: 1936: Irene is my favorite movie Magnolia. The film is not as good as the later MGM version, but with Irene and much of the original unforgettable cast (and an attempt to stay closer to the book's story, rather than the Broadway show book) it is memorable and precious.
6. Roberta: 1935: A beautiful film in so many ways It is light and airy as a feather and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers really make the movie for me, but Irene is lovely, as are the fashions.
7. Life With Father: 1947: Another lovely and very funny mother portrayal. Her pairing with William Powell is divine.
8. Back Street: 1932: The original version of this "weepie" is still the best. Irene makes it all believable and that handsome old thing, John Boles, is in it, too.
9. Theodora Goes Wild:1936: Irene's initial foray into screwball comedy and, aided by the great and underrated Melvyn Douglas, she is a pure delight.
10. Love Affair: 1939: The wonderful first version. Sorry, Cary (star of the remake, "An Affair to Remember"), but Irene and Charles Boyer are as light and sparkly as their favored pink champagne.
11. A Guy Named Joe:1943: Co-starring Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, this is one of those wartime romances that goes straight to the heart (even though you know it's over the top). Irene, however, is wonderful and gets to sing the beautiful I'll Get By.
12. Anna and the King of Siam: 1946: NOT "The King and I," which makes it most interesting. And, it does have Rex Harrison as the king. Ever notice how Deborah Kerr inherited many of Irene's roles later on?
13. Magnificent Obsession: 1935: An unabashed sudser, and one that propelled Robert Taylor to stardom. Get out the Kleenex for this one.

The Irene Dunne film I long to see: I am ever on the lookout for 1931's "Symphony for Six Million," one Dunnie that has so far escaped me. Come on, TCM!

If you know Irene Dunne, I'm sure you adore her. If you don't know her, discover her. You'll be oh so glad you did! Promise!


The Lady Eve said...

FlickChick - A really superb tribute to Irene Dunne. Love the quote about the way she spoke. I'd not heard or read that before, but it's so true. She is my favorite of Cary Grant's co-stars (he paired well with many, but none quite compared with the Grant/Dunne combo) and the two in "The Awful Truth" are perfection; it's my own favorite screwball. I can't argue at all with your "baker's dozen" list. When is Irene Dunne's birthday? There oughta be a blogathon in her honor...

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Lady Eve. Irene's birthday is December 20th...coming soon! As far as the way she spoke - I just can't put my finger on it. It is completely unique. I know Paul Kael did not like it and said some nasty things about it, but I would say she's in the minority.

Caftan Woman said...

A perfect article. As delightful as the lady Irene herself.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, CW - it's easy to say delightful things about Irene (who, by the way, resembles my Mom, so I doubly adore her).

Audrey said...

I love Irene, especially The Awful Truth and Love Affair. :)

FlickChick said...

Audrey - both were super. Imagine if Cary Grant was in "Love Affair" with her? Now, that's a dream.

Martin Turnbull said...

Thanks FlickChick for such a terrific and well-deserved post. I happened to have recently watched "The Awful Truth" and "Favorite Wife" and was reminded what a singular talent she was. It's both criminal and amazing that she's not very well remembered these days because boy oh boy did she have it!

FlickChick said...

Martin, she certainly did have ooddles of "it"! I've seen lots of appreciations of her lately on the web, so I am encouraged that an Irene Dunne renewal is at hand. Thank you for the kind words.

Inge Gregusch said...

Another insightful and witty post. Irene Dunne gets short shrift from film historians. She was a terrific comedienne and a very fine actress. Wore some fabulous fashions too. Great job, FC!

FlickChick said...

Oh, Thank you, Inge. I know she wasn't known for being a fashion icon, but I think she always looks so "just right." In fact, everything about Irene is so "just right."

casu said...

You captured properly "quintessential Dunne"! And as the webmistress of an Irene Dunne website and a blog solely about her films, I certainly hope for this long overdue renewal. Irene simply deserves her place in the "Old Hollywood heaven" - and one in the first row at that! ;)
As for "Symphony of Six Million", that's a small role - astonishingly after Irene got the first time first billing over the title for "Consolation Marriage". BTW on Youtube is a video only with Irene's scenes from the film; sums up to about 18 minutes!

FlickChick said...

Casu - I just got over to your site - wow - beautiful. Thank you for your kind words. As the 'Symphony" - I'm just a sucker for those early 1930s social justice films! makes me feel all virtuous.

Dawn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dawn said...

My favorite Irene Dunne film is, A Guy Named Joe (1943). Irene Dunne was wonderful in musicals as well as dramas. It was wonderfu to hear her sing in this film. I really enjoyed reading your awesome tribute to Irene Dunne

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Dawn. Irene really could do it all. She was so professional and made everything look so effortless - a real pro on top of being exceedingly delightful and sincere.

Grand Old Movies said...

Delightful post - Irene Dunne is one of my absolute faves - brilliant (and brilliantly funny) in THE AWFUL TRUTH

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Grand Old Movies- and Irene is indeed everything that is bright and sparkly - delightful and brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Greetings from Misty aka Big Dunne Fan

Great tribute to Irene Dunne. I absolutely LOVE Irene Dunne. She was an incredible woman - talent, beauty, class, elegance! I have trouble applying these same words to most of today's young actresses. I've exposed my 11 year old to Irene Dunne, and he's a fan. So we Dunne fans can rest assured knowing that there will be at least 1 kid keeping her name alive as we get old.

FlickChick said...

Hi Misty - everyone who knows Irene loves her. Glad you are sharing and passing it on to those you love.