“You’d never get tired of having her around, because she’d always be someone else for you.”
The reasons for Irene Dunne’s continuing, undeserved obscurity are fairly well known. Nearly all of her best films from the thirties and forties were remade and the originals were suppressed and didn’t play on television. She did some of her most distinctive work for John Stahl at Universal, and non-horror Universal films are rarely shown now. Practically all of her movies need to be restored; even her most popular effort, The Awful Truth (1937), looks grainy and blotchy on its DVD transfer, to say nothing of things like Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes (1939), or Rouben Mamoulian’s High, Wide, and Handsome (1937), two key Dunne films that have languished and deteriorated in a sort of television/video purgatory.
Dunne’s uneventful private life will never hold much interest for scandalmongers. She was born in Kentucky in 1898, to a riverboat captain father who died when she was eleven. Following a convent upbringing, her mother encouraged her to sing, and Dunne had ambitions to become an opera singer, but she failed her audition for the Metropolitan Opera in 1920. Not too certain of herself or her career path, Dunne spent her twenties pursuing work in musical comedies on the stage, finally landing the role of Magnolia for the road company tour of Show Boat. A movie contract offer came through on that tour, and Dunne went out to Hollywood, leaving behind her husband, Dr. Francis Griffin, a dentist who was twelve years her senior.
Dunne and Griffin lived on separate coasts for six years; such an arrangement may have started rumors for other stars, but Dunne comported herself in such an unimpeachably ladylike manner that no one blinked an eye, and it seems clear that she enjoyed one of Hollywood’s few successful marriages (it lasted until Griffin’s death in the sixties). Dunne was famously religious, a staunch Catholic who stayed rather truer to her faith than her friend Loretta Young. “God does not read an actresses’ press clippings,” she said: later on in life, she went to Mass every day. She was little seen in public after the early fifties, though she did come out for a few select tributes in the seventies.
Dunne’s career achievement has long been damaged by two key critical reactions to her work: James Agee’s assertion in the forties that she made his skin crawl, and Pauline Kael’s assorted bitchy comments about Dunne’s performances in her book of short reviews, 5001 Nights at the Movies. Agee and Kael are two of the greatest film critics, and hugely influential, so it helps to put their comments in context. These two practiced the most subjective film criticism, and their writing about Dunne is extremely subjective and understandable only if you are familiar with their specific taste as writers and as people. Agee had a yen for simple women like June Allyson, and he reacted to movie actresses in the manner of a prospective suitor, so Dunne’s blithe, mature complications might have intimidated him. Kael made a religion out of skewering pomposity, and she invariably heeped scorn on any actress she felt was doing a high-falutin’ “great lady” act. Kael called Dunne smug in her dramatic roles, and damned her with faint praise even in her best comedy parts, conceding only that she had “energy” in Theodora Goes Wild (1936). She saw Dunne’s respectable surface and made a snap judgment that stuck; Kael didn’t bother to delve a bit further.
James Harvey published an insightful rebuttal to these early cavils in his classic book Romantic Comedy, even ending his study with a lengthy, revealing Dunne interview. Her critical reputation has improved since, but her films are still so difficult to see that there needs to be a new accounting of who she was and what she did on film. Her genre versatility is unmatched, and she had unique versatility as an actress — compare, for example, her sober scientist in The Silver Cord (1933) with her ditzy wife and mother in Life with Father (1947). These are two completely different women, and both are completely believable creations.
It’s hard to say just what sort of image Dunne left behind, because it changed through several periods, and, as Harvey wrote, she usually “lies low” on screen. Dunne doesn’t shout “Look at me!” like Davis or Hepburn, or Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard, for that matter. She doesn’t have a fixed type. Is she worldly? naïve? young? middle-aged? It’s difficult to tell, because she was so fluid, so there but not there. It might do to call her vague, but that’s not quite it either. Dunne is entirely self-contained, and she’s rarely in danger on screen of exposing anything she doesn’t want to show us. She doesn’t seem to have a nerve in her body; this was perhaps a result of a life that was a good deal more contented than those of her contemporaries, and a religious faith that gave her supreme assurance (which pagan Kael found infuriating). Her involved characterizations and sense of fantasy made certain that she emerged from her Hollywood experience with nary a scratch, having conquered three distinct genres in the span of about twenty years.
I: Serious Irene
Dunne made her debut in Leathernecking (1930), a musical that is just about impossible to see, if it indeed still exists at all (most of its songs were jettisoned on release). Reviews of the time make it sound like a trifle, but Dunne soon made up for this inauspicious beginning with Cimarron (1931), an epic western and Best Picture Oscar winner that established her on screen and won her the first of five unrewarded Best Actress nominations. In that film, which looks mighty creaky today (Dunne herself found it “awfully hammy” when she saw it later), her Sabra Cravat is written as the eternal wife, a little dim and shy, but ever loyal. Dunne highlights Sabra’s rigidity, complacence, and concern with appearances, and she enjoys burying herself and the character under old age make-up in the last scenes.
This is an actress unconcerned with putting herself over in the most flattering manner. She wanted to stay true to an imagined person: in her interview with Harvey, Dunne confessed that she always discussed “her” at home as she created a role, and went to her dressing room to write detailed thoughts about her various women. “Everything I did had a purpose — you know?” she said. “It wasn’t just a superficial acting job for the moment. It was tremendously important to me.” Dunne also reported that she thought of sad things from her own life in order to cry, though such Lee Strasberg methods would seem to be useless to a woman with such a settled, unstormy personal life. Perhaps her father’s death was a large source of emotion for her; that would explain the distance and privacy of her grief on screen. (Dunne claimed that she had a temper, but it’s barely visible in her work.)
Her dedication and intensity was wasted on most of her Cimarron follow-up films, programmers like Bachelor Apartment and Consolation Marriage (both 1931), or idiotic thrillers like Thirteen Women (1932). Once the superlative Back Street (1932) set her up in soap operas, she had to play knock-offs like The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933), where there are moments when she seems to be doing an (unconscious?) Carol Burnett parody of the mother love material. At the start of If I Were Free (1933), Dunne plays burned-out, flippant anger for the first and only time, and she’s very striking in this mode, without ever letting it define her. “What is it about Irene Dunne?” asks David Thomson, at the top of Dunne’s entry in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. “She was not a great beauty, or a commanding actress.” Even characters in her films discuss her elusiveness. In The Age of Innocence (1934), a decent adaptation of the Wharton novel, an older man muses, “She’s not exactly beautiful . . . I don’t quite know how to say it.” Dunne is miscast as the erotic Countess Olenska, but her quiet, languid, “what is it?” quality gives her Countess all the fascination she needs.
In The Silver Cord, Dunne effortlessly incarnates the cool New Woman of the thirties, tactfully but directly facing off against Laura Hope Crews’ eye-openingly manipulative mother. The year before, Dunne had scored in Stahl’s Back Street, where she played a loose, almost bovine, childlike woman ensnared in a Fassbinder master/slave dynamic with the caddish John Boles. Dunne plays the opening scenes of Back Street with a lightness of touch that captures our sympathy, and when we see her detached, cat-like contentment with Boles after she meets him again, she’s gone beyond mere heroine sympathy into a downright haunting image of reflective, complex feeling. Boles installs her in a sad little apartment, where Dunne’s once vibrant character waits her life away painting little bits of china and longing for the phone to ring. Fannie Hurst’s soap opera is transfigured by Stahl’s remorseless, sober concentration, which is close to Dreyer’s treatment of Gertrud(1964).
Keen on working with interesting directors, Dunne always had it in her contract that she could pick her auteurs, a smart move. She made three films for John Stahl, later complaining about his endless takes, and that he wanted her “bothered” on the set. Yet he got something out of Dunne that she never showed elsewhere. He wore down her poker face of piety and staid playfulness, and what was revealed was something somewhat severe, almost malevolent. Stahl only scratches her surface in Magnificent Obsession (1935), and it’s a wonder he can give the mystic mumbo-jumbo of that story any interest. But look at some of her close-ups in the same director’s When Tomorrow Comes, during the wondrous mid-section where she and Charles Boyer are trapped together during a storm. Dunne stares at the married Boyer with sophisticated misgivings, which is in her range, certainly, but Stahl keeps the camera on her face, and at last he gets what he is looking for: Irene Dunne. In a few lingering shots, he reveals the source of her dignity, her apprehensions and her nearly malignant gravity. As far as her dramatic work goes, Stahl is Dunne’s best director; maybe her Catholicism (Mass every day?) was secretly stimulated by his many-take attention.
In two touching but slightly labored films for George Stevens, Penny Serenade (1941) and I Remember Mama (1948), Dunne is again encouraged by the slow patience of the director. Penny Serenade is about disappointment, and it makes big demands on Dunne. She has to hold the whole film together by reminiscing silently to records in between scenes, and she succeeds in drawing us into her character’s private world and thoughts. When asked to portray grief after losing a child, Dunne makes an unusual choice: instead of acting jumpy and bereaved, she merely sits in a chair and gets a glazed, hard look in her eye. The same look of intent self-reproach colors her Norwegian mother figure in the later film. Dunne submerges herself in this heavy-spirited, kind matriarch, endowing her with vagrant hints of playfulness at strategic moments.
This playfulness activates and enlivens one of Dunne’s signal achievements as an actress, her portrayal of Queen Victoria in The Mudlark (1950). The film was considered a failure when it was released, even by Dunne herself, and it is little-seen. But this is quite a performance. Dunne wore padding and complicated make-up to give her Victoria’s heavy jaw line. More impressively, she changed her whole way of speaking to fit the character: Dunne’s native Kentucky drawl is noticeable throughout much of her work (she sometimes says “muh” for “my” and “yuh” for “you”), and it was a large part of her purring, honeysuckle style. As Victoria the English queen, she speaks in fast, clipped, harsh British tones, much more pronounced than her standard American speech in Anna and the King of Siam (1946), and she obliterates herself in a way that Bette Davis, for instance, never could when she played her fabled character roles.
Dunne’s Victoria is round, nostalgic, a little poky, and her voice is thin and privileged (whereas Dunne’s was thick and almost folksy). When John Brown (Finlay Currie) mentions putting whisky in some tea, she doesn’t turn around to face him: she simply straightens her back slightly to make her outraged point (Dunne’s sense of timing was always knife-sharp). Though The Mudlark is a modest movie, it serves as a proper showcase for Dunne’s detailed character study; she took a huge risk in attempting to play Queen Victoria, but it really paid off. Her Victoria seems monstrous as the film goes on, a death’s head, even, and sympathy ebbs away from her genteel stoniness. But in her penultimate scene, when her Victoria suddenly says, “They don’t like me,” admitting that she’s scared of her subjects, the actress wins our love for this iffy woman.
II: Musical Irene
Dunne’s background in music and accomplished soprano voice was only gradually revealed to audiences, but she often sang in movies — musicals, dramas, comedies. For a silly film like The Great Lover (1931), she did some operatic arias, and she had fun with a bawdy music hall ditty in The Secret of Madame Blanche, but it wasn’t until the bizarre western/musical Stingaree (1934) that she had a full-scale musical vehicle. Dunne plays a speculative, ambitious girl (again, a distinctly different sort of woman for her) who winds up as an opera star, and she gets to do a respectably sung aria from Faust. Another ramshackle musical vehicle, Sweet Adeline (1935), had the advantage of a lush Jerome Kern score. Trilling “Why Was I Born?” and other Kern standards here, Dunne really seems to love singing — it has an almost narcotic effect on her. Even when she puts a tear into her voice, she seems to touch a secret source of amusement and bliss when she sings, as if she has thrown some kind of druggy switch in herself.
There aren’t many performers who could compete with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the dance floor, but Dunne makes a tantalizing try in Roberta (1935). In sumptuous close-ups, she sings “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” as if she likes the idea of being concealed by the smoke. Dunne could be glamorous if she chose to be (she could be practically anything if she chose to be), and she’s a real vision when she sings “Lovely to Look At,” kidding the song a bit but putting the truth to its words. Her voice is full-bodied in Roberta, with impressive high notes, as if she wants to be at her best next to Fred and Ginger (just as she worked hard to be ultra-lively and charming opposite an obdurate Spencer Tracy in A Guy Named Joe, 1943, where she lyrically sang “I’ll Get By”).
In James Whale’s pretty, panoramic version of Show Boat (1936), Dunne easily gets away with playing her old ingènue part, though she was close to forty. In carefully lit close-up, she impatiently sings “Make Believe” and does a weird shuck and jive with Hattie McDaniel (a completely indefensible blackface number later on in the film serves as a blot on Dunne’s career, alas.) For High, Wide, and Handsome (1937) an epic western/musical filled with corny energy, square-dances, and fistfights, Dunne isn’t particularly convincing as a barnstorming singer, but she’s very funny belting out “Allegheny Al” in a beer hall, and mockingly reprising the Kern title tune over and over again, as Randolph Scott keeps shaking apple blossoms onto her head. Kael called her the “Julie Andrews of her day” in musicals like this, but that’s far off the mark. Dunne uses her soprano voice playfully, often ironically; she’s never as simple and starched as Andrews, or as coy as Jeanette MacDonald. And Dunne’s voice isn’t her be-all and end-all, as it was with those singing stars: it’s as if she’s saying, “Look, I can do this too!” And she’s too emotionally reserved to really believe in her often-sentimental music fully.
Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941) gets uncomfortably close to Dunne’s own life at times. It’s one of the few movies where she seems to be playing her own age, and her character starts off at a mid-life crisis point, languishing in a small town. Determined to make something of herself, Dunne hops on a train and meets a leering Preston Foster. Stuck in the confines of their train compartment, they seduce each other. (This sequence has to be the most sexually direct Dunne ever was on screen. She loves to tease her leading men, but never crosses the line into eroticism.) Her character auditions for an opera company, and we see her singing parts of an aria — she gets rejected, as Dunne herself was in 1920. Like many of La Cava’s movies, it has a grim, hung-over vibe, and it is personal in all the wrong ways for Dunne, who is by turns revelatory and depressed in it (she wants to hide in the movies, and make believe, not expose herself).
As far as singing goes, though, Dunne’s finest musical moment on screen is in Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes, when she slowly sings Schubert’s “Serenade” with Charles Boyer accompanying her on the piano, cautiously enunciating the words as a storm starts to blow in. Dunne was often a nervous singer, somehow, as if she was fearful of showing too much feeling, or marked by that earlier rejection from the Met. But for Stahl, Dunne lets go of her insecurities and sings one of the world’s most beautiful songs in a scared but impassioned voice: she never did anything more romantic.
III: Comic Irene
The real surprise and delight of Dunne’s career, of course, was her ability to play comedy, which was unveiled right in the middle of the screwball comedy cycle of the thirties with Theodora Goes Wild. Dunne didn’t want to do the film; she saw herself as a dramatic actress, and even after her success with comedy, she disdained the genre and her career-defining efforts in it, saying that it was largely a matter of timing.Theodora Goes Wild is Dunne’s flashiest, most purely pleasurable performance. “I know a lot of friends of mine like it better than almost anything I ever made,” she said. “Because they say, now that’s the real you.” If so, her friends were lucky.
As the secret author of a scandalous book, Dunne is armored in primness at first, furtive. You can only see what lies underneath her reserve in brief, secret smiles, a slight flash of her eyes (when Dunne really opens her eyes on screen, they can seem a bit desolate, which is why she kept them half-closed a lot, especially for comedy). When Theodora gets drunk with some city slickers, she parodies her own inhibitions and lets out gurgling laughs at Melvyn Douglas’ wolfish illustrator. In the last third of the movie, the “going wild” part, Dunne unleashes flurries of her most extreme physical mannerisms: blinking her eyes rapidly, touching the tip of her tongue to the roof of her mouth, emitting low, self-loving “ahas” and “ums” and “ahs.” Dunne plays at being naughty, and the distance between herself and her effects makes the joke. It’s a real movie joke, too, since Dunne seems to suggest that imagining being naughty is more fun than actually putting in the enervating work for a good debauch.
She got another Oscar nomination for Theodora, and a third one for The Awful Truth, her most famous movie and still a glossy situation comedy marvel. Dunne enters the film in a huge white fur coat, bubbly as champagne and dizzily vivacious, taking Theodora’s wildness several steps further with the aid of Leo McCarey’s improvisational gusto and Cary Grant’s passionate, silly/sexy partnering. Dunne has a keen sense of movement here, making hilariously dismissive hand gestures toward Grant’s errant husband, kicking the train of her gown at him with just the right amount of hauteur to land the joke (like her back-straightening in The Mudlark). Giving a serious music recital, Dunne arches her eyebrows as she lets out a melodic laugh after Grant takes a pratfall, fusing Serious Irene, Musical Irene, and Comic Irene together in one perfect moment.
Her Southern drawl comes out more in The Awful Truth because she’s so relaxed, and this is especially helpful for her big set-piece, when she pretends to be Grant’s low-class sister “Lola” in front of some society people. Lola is afraid of having her purse stolen, brags of eating a ham for dinner, and asks for a drink because she “had three or four before I got here, but they’re starting to wear off, and you know how that is!” Dunne’s stylized treatment of seemingly bottomless personal vulgarity is so expertly judged and all-out that it takes the breath away, and she shows the full measure of her talent by switching to pert, gently yielding sexiness in the film’s final bedroom encounter. Dunne’s Lucy is the ideal woman because she’s the ideal actress, Irene Dunne, able to do just about anything, an emblem of romantic versatility. You’d never get tired of having her around, because she’d always be someone else for you (and it’s no mistake that Dunne was a consummate actress who actually enjoyed a happy marriage).
Joy of Living (1938) reprised the last part of Theodora with sometimes labored results, though it does end on the memorable image of Dunne walking barefoot in the rain. And My Favorite Wife reprised The Awful Truth in many of its situations, but Grant and Dunne are so perfectly matched that they’re fun to watch even in re-warmed material. (She loved working with Grant, and said she cried when she didn’t get to do the second film version of Holiday with him.) Her later comedies are threadbare affairs, and Dunne’s shtick became purely technical after awhile, as if she was flirting only with herself. But Leo McCarey offered her an apotheosis with Love Affair (1939,below), a whole film that fuses her disparate modes much as her singing laugh did in The Awful Truth.
As Terry McKay, a former nightclub singer who’s gotten used to a rich boyfriend’s gifts, Dunne is at her most arch and adult when she meets up with Continental seducer Charles Boyer. She goes much further into improv interplay with McCarey; the conversational stops and starts have the effect of making the actors seem more actory, more glamorous. Dunne’s Terry is droll about nearly everything as she sips her pink champagne, yet she stares at an image of the Virgin Mary and the phallic Empire State Building with equal parts yearning and devotion. In the second half, when she’s been crippled, Dunne offers deep, still-faced despair, then smiles, heartbreakingly. She sings with children, and she gracefully waits for Boyer to come to her, as Dunne herself gracefully waits for audiences to come back to her films, which all need to be restored and made more available. “She seems to be terrific in just about everything,” said a friend of mine, with a note of surprise in his voice, after I showed him a few very different Dunne movies. Terrific she is: platonically romantic, slightly above it all, always slipping out of your grasp, and completely at one with her medium.
Author’s note: This piece could not have been written without the assistance of Joan McGittigan, a Dunne aficionado who kindly made me copies of some of the actress’ rarest films. She truly went above and beyond the call of duty, and my hat is off to her.