|A.K.A.||First Lady of Hollywood,|
|Was||Actor Film actor Stage actor Television actor Singer Politician|
|From||United States of America|
|Type||Film, TV, Stage & Radio Music Politics|
|Birth||20 December 1898, Louisville, Jefferson County, Kentucky, USA|
|Death||4 September 1990, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, USA (aged 91 years)|
Irene Dunne (born Irene Marie Dunn; December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American actress and singer who appeared in Hollywood films during its golden age. She is best known for her comedic roles, despite being in films of varied genres, and has been revered as one of the most notorious Academy Award snubs.
After her father died when she was fourteen, Dunne's family relocated from Kentucky to Indiana and she became determined to become an opera singer, but when she was rejected by The Met, she performed in musicals on Broadway until she was scouted by RKO and made her Hollywood film debut in the 1930 musical Leathernecking. She starred in 42 movies and made guest appearances on radio and in popular anthology television until 1962; she was nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Actress – for her performances in Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948) – and was one of the top 25 highest-paid actors of her time.
Dunne spent retirement devoted to philanthropy and was chosen by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as a delegate for the United States to the United Nations, in which she advocated for world peace, such as highlighting refugee-relief programs. She also used the time to be with her family – her husband, dentist Dr. Francis Griffin, and their daughter, whom they adopted in 1938. She received numerous awards for her philanthropy, including honorary doctorates, a Laetare Medal and a Sepulchre damehood, and was given the Kennedy Center Honors for her services to the arts.
In the present, Dunne is known as one of the greatest actresses who never won an Oscar. Some critics theorize that her performances have been underappreciated and largely forgotten, overshadowed by movie remakes and her better-known co-stars. Dunne fled across the Atlantic Ocean to avoid starring in a comedy, but she has been praised by many during her career, and after her death, as one of the best comedic actresses in the screwball genre. She was nicknamed "The First Lady of Hollywood" for her regal attitude despite being proud of her Irish-American, country girl roots, but the contrasts have been credited for her down-to-earth characters.
Irene Marie Dunn was born on December 20, 1898, at 507 East Gray Street in Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph John Dunn (1863–1913), an Irish-American steamboat engineer/inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Antoinette Dunn (née, Henry) (1871–1936), a concert pianist/music teacher of German descent from Newport. She was their second child and second daughter, and had a younger brother named Charles (1901–1981); Dunne's elder sister, born 1897, died soon after her birth. The family alternated between living in Kentucky and St. Louis, due to her father's job offers, but he died in April 1913 from a kidney infection when she was fourteen. She saved all of his letters and both remembered and lived by what he told her the night before he died: "Happiness is never an accident. It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores."
Following her father's death, Dunne's family moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana, living at 916 W. Second St., in the same neighborhood as Dunne's grandparents' home. Dunne's mother taught her to play the piano as a very small girl — according to Dunne, "Music was as natural as breathing in our house," — but unfortunately for her, music lessons frequently prevented her from playing with the neighborhood kids. Her first school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream began her interest in drama, so she took singing lessons as well, and sang in local churches and high school plays before her graduation in 1916. Her first ambition was to become a music teacher and studied at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music and Webster College, earning a diploma in 1918, but saw an audition advertizement for the Chicago Musical College when she visited friends during a journey to Gary, and won the College scholarship, officially graduating in 1926. She hoped to become a soprano opera singer, relocating to New York after finishing her second year in 1920, but did not pass the audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company due to her inexperience and her "slight" voice.
Dunne took more singing lessons and then dancing lessons to prepare for a possible career in musical theater. On a New York vacation to visit family friends, she was recommended to audition for a stage musical, eventually starring as the leading role in the popular play Irene, which toured major cities as a roadshow throughout 1921. "Back in New York," Dunne reflected, "I thought that with my experience on the road and musical education it would be easy to win a role. It wasn't." Her Broadway debut was December 25, the following year as Tessie in Zelda Sears's The Clinging Vine, and she took leading role when the original actress took a leave of absence in 1924. Supporting roles in musical theater productions followed in the shows The City Chap (1925), Yours Truly (1927) and She's My Baby (1928), as well as a season of light opera in Atlanta, later calling her career beginnings "not great furor", and her first top-billing, leading role Luckee Girl (1928) was not as successful as her previous projects. Somewhere around this era, Dunne added the extra "e" to her surname, which had ironically been mispelled as "Dunne" at times throughout her life until this point; until her death, "Dunne" would then occasionally be mispelled as "Dunn". Starring as Magnolia Hawks in a road company adaptation of Show Boat was the result of a chance meeting with its director Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in an elevator the day she returned from her honeymoon, when he mistook her for his next potential client, eventually sending his secretary to chase after her. A talent scout for RKO Pictures attended a performance, and Dunne signed the studio's contract, appearing in her first movie, Leathernecking (1930), a film version of the musical Present Arms. Already in her 30s when she made her first film, she would be in competition with younger actresses for roles, and found it advantageous to evade questions that would reveal her age, so publicists encouraged the belief that she was born in 1901 or 1904; the former is the date engraved on her tombstone.
The "Hollywood musical" era had fizzled out so Dunne moved on to dramatic roles during the Pre-Code era, leading a successful campaign for Cimarron (1931) with her soon-to-be co-star Richard Dix, leading to her first Best Actress nomination. Her role as the determined but ladylike mother figure of Sabra reflected her later persona and reflected in other films she starred in afterwards, such as the melodramas Back Street (1932) and Magnificent Obsession (1935). The latter had the best critical acclaim and the melodrama she reportedly did the most preparation for, studying Braille and working on posture with blind consultant Ruby Fruth. This was after she and Dix reunited for Stingaree (1934), where overall consensus was that Dunne had usurped Dix's star power. The 1934 Sweet Adeline remake and Roberta (1935) was the first two musicals Dunne had appeared in since Leathernecking; Roberta also starred dancing partners Fred and Ginger, and she sang the musical's breakaway pop hit "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". Between this, her movies had given her characters opportunities to sing to an audience, and she also starred in Stingaree and The Great Lover (1931) as opera singers. In 1936, she starred as Magnolia Hawks in Show Boat (1936), directed by James Whale. Dunne had concerns about Whale's directing decisions, but she later remarked that her favorite scene to film was "Make Believe" with Allan Jones because it reminded her of Romeo and Juliet. It was during this year that Dunne's RKO contract had expired and she had decided to become a freelance actor, with the power to choose studios and directors. Dunne was apprehensive about attempting her first comedy role as the title character in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), but discovered that she enjoyed it, and received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for the performance.
Later years of Dunne's film career became diverse. She starred in three films each with Charles Boyer and Cary Grant in screwball comedies (The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940)), romantic dramas (Love Affair (1939), When Tomorrow Comes (1939)), drama (Penny Serenade (1941)) and comedy (Together Again (1944)). She starred in fictionalized dramas Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and later The Mudlark (1950) as Anna Leonowens and Queen Victoria, respectively, was in the comedies Unfinished Business (1941), Lady in a Jam (1942) and Over 21 (1945), and the war movies A Guy Named Joe (1943) and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). She also starred as mothers Lavinia Day in Life with Father (1947), and Marta Hanson in I Remember Mama (1948). Marta required her to wear aging makeup and body padding, and she wore prosthetics to portray Queen Victoria.
To Dunne's dismay, her last three films were box-office failures. The Mudlark was a success in the UK, despite initial critical concern over the only foreigner in a British film starring as a well-known British monarch, but Dunne's American fans disapproved of the makeup decision. The comedy It Grows on Trees (1952) became Dunne's last movie performance, although she remained on the lookout for suitable film scripts for years afterwards; she was once rumored to star in a movie named Heaven Train, and rejected an offer to cameo in Airport '77. However, she made appearances in other media, starring as newspaper editor Susan Armstrong in the radio program Bright Star (1952-53) with co-star Fred MacMurray, appeared at 1953's March of Dimes showcase in New York City, hosted and starred in episodes of Ford Theatre, General Electric Theater, and the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars until 1962, and made guest performances on reality television, such as charity specials, talk shows, and made two appearances as the mystery guest on What's My Line?. Faye Emerson wrote in 1954 that "I hope we see much more of Miss Dunne on TV" and Nick Adams called Dunne's performance in Saints and Sinners worth an Emmy nomination.
Describing her anomalous career in 1980, James McCourt wrote "Irene Dunne seems more than, less than, or other than a movie star." Dunne later said that she had lacked the "terrifying ambition" of some other actresses: "I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is."
Dunne was present at Disneyland on "Dedication Day" in 1955 and was asked by Walt Disney to christen the Mark Twain River Boat, which she did with a bottle filled with water from several major rivers across the United States. Years before, Dunne had also christened the S.S. Carole Lombard.
In her retirement, she devoted herself primarily to humanitarianism. Some of the organizations she worked with include the American Cancer Society, the Los Angeles Orphanage, and the American Red Cross. She was also president of St. John's Hospital Clinc and became a board member of Technicolor in 1965, the first woman ever elected to the board of directors. She established an African American school for Los Angeles, negotiated donations to St. John's through box office results, and served as chairwoman in 1949 for the American Heart Association's women's committee, and Hebrew University Rebuilding Fun's sponsors committee. On television, she appeared in 1955's celebrity-rostered Benefit Show for Retarded Children with Jack Benny as host. Dunne also donated to refurbishments in Madison, Indiana, funding the manufacture of Camp Louis Ernst Boy Scout's gate in 1939 and the Broadway Fountain's 1976 restoration.
Dunne reflected: "If I began living in Hollywood today I would certainly one thing that I did when I arrived, and that is to be active in charity. If one is going to take something out of a community — any community — one must put something in, too." She also hoped that charity would encourage submissive women to find independence: "I wish women would be more direct. [...] I was amazed when some quiet little mouse of a woman was given a job which seemed to be out of all proportion to her capabilities. Then I saw the drive with which she undertook that job and put it through to a great finish. It was both inspiring and surprising. I want women to be individuals. They should not lean on their husbands' opinions and be merely echoes of the men of the family[.]"
American delegate to the United Nations
In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Dunne one of five alternative U.S. delegates to the United Nations in recognition of her interest in international affairs and Roman Catholic and Republican causes. Dunne admired the U.N.'s dedication to creating world peace, and was inspired by colleagues' beliefs that Hollywood influenced the world. She held delegacy for two years and addressed the General Assembly twice. She gave her delegacy its own anthem: "Getting to Know You" because "it's so simple, and yet so fundamental in international relations today." Dunne later described her Assembly request for $21 million to help Palestinian refugees as her "biggest thrill", and called her delegacy career the "highlight of my life". She also concluded, "I came away greatly impressed with the work the U.N. does in its limited field — and it does have certain limits. I think we averted a serious situation in Syria, which might have been much more worse without a forum to hear it... And I'm much impressed with the work the U.N. agencies do. I'm especially interested in UNICEF's work with children[,] and the health organization[.]"
Dunne was a lifelong Republican and participated in 1948's Republican convention. She accepted the U.N. delegacy offer because she viewed the U.N. as apolitical. She later explained: "I'm a Nixon Republican, not a Goldwater one. I don't like extremism in any case. The extreme rights do as much harm as the extreme lefts." Her large input in politics created an assumption that she was a member of the "Hollywood right-wing fringe", which Dunne denied, calling herself "foolish" for being involved years before other celebrities did.
Dunne's father's boat engineering job sparked Dunne's enjoyment of steamboat rides, later being quoted, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the riverboats with my father." He told her stories about traveling on bayous and lazy rivers, and the family once watched boats on the Ohio River from the hillside. Dunne noted the irony of starring in Show Boat and its film adaptation when she promoted the movie to the media and reminisced about her vacations with The New York Times.
Dunne was an avid golf player and had played since high school graduation; she and her husband often played against each other and she made a hole in one in two different games. She was good friends with Loretta Young, Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, Carole Lombard, and George Stevens Jr., and became godmother to Young's son, Peter. Dunne also bonded with Leo McCarey over numerous similar interests, such as their Irish ancestry, music, religious backgrounds, and humor. School friends nicknamed her "Dunnie" and she was referred to as this in Madison High School's 1916 yearbook, along with the description "divinely tall and most divinely fair".
One of Dunne's later public appearances was in April 1985, when she attended the dedication of a bronze bust in her honor at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for which her foundation, The Irene Dunne Guild, had raised more than $20 million. The Irene Dunne Guild remains "instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services at St. John's" hospital in Santa Monica. The artwork, commissioned by the hospital from artist Artis Lane, has a plaque reading "IRENE DUNNE First Lady Of Saint John's Hospital and Health Center Foundation".
Between 1919 and 1922, Dunne was close to Fritz Ernst, a businessman based in Chicago who was 20 years older than her and a member of one of the richest families in Madison, Indiana. They frequently corresponded over letters while Dunne was training for musical theater but when Fritz proposed, Dunne rejected, due to pressure from her mother and wanting to focus on acting. They remained friends and continued writing letters until Ernst died in 1959.
At a New York, Biltmore Hotel supper party in 1924, Dunne met Northampton-born dentist Francis Griffin. According to Dunne, he preferred being a bachelor, yet tried everything he could to meet her. To her frustration, he did not telephone her until over a month later, but the relationship had strengthened and they married in Manhattan on July 13, 1927. They had constantly argued about the state of their careers if they ever got married, with Dunne agreeing to consider theater retirement sometime in the future and Griffin agreeing to support Dunne's acting. Griffin later explained: "I didn't like the moral tone of show business. [...] Then Ziegfeld signed her for 'Show Boat' and it looked like she was due for big things. Next came Hollywood and [she] was catapulted to the top. Then I didn't feel I could ask her to drop her career. [I] really didn't think marriage and the stage were compatible but we loved each other and we were both determined to make our marriage work."
When Dunne decided to star in Leathernecking, it was meant to be her only Hollywood project, but when it was a box-office bomb, she took an interest in Cimarron. Soon after, she and her mother moved to Hollywood and maintained a long-distance relationship with her husband and brother in New York until they joined her in California in 1936. They remained married until Griffin's death on October 14, 1965, and lived in the Holmby Hills in a "kind of French Chateau" they designed. They had one daughter, Mary Frances (née Anna Mary Bush; born 1932), who was adopted by the couple in 1936 (finalized in 1938) from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity of New York. Due to Dunne's privacy, Hollywood columnists struggled to find scandals to write about her — an eventual interview with Photoplay included the disclaimer, "I can guarantee no juicy bits of intimate gossip. Unless, perhaps she lies awake nights heartsick about the kitchen sink in her new home. She's afraid it's too near to the door. Or would you call that juicy? No? No, I thought not." When the magazines alleged that Dunne and Griffin would divorce, Griffin released a statement denying any marital issues. When Griffin was asked about how the marriage had lasted, he replied, "When she had to go on location for a film I arranged my schedule so I could go with her. When I had to go out of town she arranged her schedule so she could be with me. We co-operate in everything. [...] I think a man married to a career woman in show business has to be convinced that his wife's talent is too strong to be dimmed or put out. Then, he can be just as proud of her success as she is and, inside he can take a bow himself for whatever help he's been."
After retiring from dentistry, Griffin became Dunne's business manager, and helped negotiate her first contract. The couple became interested in real estate, later investing in the Beverly Wilshire and partnering with Griffin's family's businesses (Griffin Equipment Company and The Griffin Wellpoint Company.) Griffin sat as a board member of numerous banks, but his offices were relocated from Century City to their home after his death, when Dunne took over as president.
Dunne was a devout Roman Catholic, who became a daily communicant. She was a member of the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California. Both Dunne and her husband were members of the Knights of Malta.
Dunne died at the age of 91 in her Holmby Hills home on September 4, 1990, and is entombed in the Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles. She had been unwell for a year and became bedridden about a month before. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California. She was survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Dunne is considered one of the best actresses of The Golden Age of Hollywood never to win an Academy Award, along with actresses such as Deborah Kerr, Myrna Loy, and Barbara Stanwyck. Despite this, she is not as well-remembered as the other three. Jessica Pickens theorized on Netflix DVD's Blog, "She was in dramatic 'weepers,' musicals, and comedies. Perhaps this versatility could be why she goes overlooked—she wasn't pinned down to one role or stereotype." Pickens also points out that "so many of her films were remade into large budget films in the 1950s after she ended her film career", such as Anna and the King of Siam (remade as The King and I ten years later), Love Affair (remade as An Affair to Remember), Show Boat (remade in 1951) and Cimarron (remade in 1960). Dunne's well-known films are notably The Awful Truth, My Favourite Wife, Penny Serenade and Roberta — the latter an Astaire/Rogers film ("more a vehicle for the dancing pair, than anything else"), and the other three co-starring Cary Grant; all three actors ranked in AFI's 100 Years ... 100 Stars (males: Grant, #2; Astaire, #5; Rogers, #14 female). The Awful Truth was voted the 68th best comedy of American cinema. Roger Fristoe pointed out that because of the remakes, "a generation of filmgoers is mostly unfamiliar with her work" because "the (usually superior) originals [are] hidden away in studio vaults to avoid odious comparisons."
Although known for her comedic roles, Dunne admitted that she never saw comedy as a worthy genre, even leaving the country on a cruise to the London premiere of Show Boat with her husband and James Whale to get away from being confronted with a script for Theodora Goes Wild. "I never admired a comedienne," she said retrospectively, "yet it was very easy for me, very natural. It was no effort for me to do comedy at all. Maybe that's why I wasn't so appreciative of it." She dedicated her sense of humor to her late father, as well as her "Irish stubbornness". Her screwball comedy characters have been praised for their subversions to the traditional characterisation of female leads in the genre, particularly Susan (Katharine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby and Irene (Carole Lombard) in My Man Godfrey. "Unlike the genre's stereotypical leading lady, who exhibits bonkers behaviour continuously," writes Wes D. Gehring, "Dunne's screwball heroine [in Theodora Goes Wild] chooses when she goes wild." Biographers and critics argue that Dunne's groundedness made her screwball characters more attractive than her contemporaries; Maria DiBattista points out that Dunne is the "only comic actress working under the strictures of the Production Code" who ends both of her screwball movies alongside Cary Grant with a heavy implication of sharing a bed with him, "under the guise of keeping him at bay." Meanwhile, outside of comedy, Andrew Sarris theorized that Dunne's sex appeal is due to the common narrative in her movies about a good girl "going bad".
Dunne was popular with co-workers off-camera, earning a reputation as warm, approachable and having a "poised, gracious manner" like royalty, which spilled into her persona in movies. She earned the nickname "The First Lady of Hollywood" because "she was the first real lady Hollywood has ever seen," said Leo McCarey, with Gregory La Cava adding, "If Irene Dunne isn't the first lady of Hollywood, then she's the last one." Ironically, this title had been bestowed on her when she was a little girl when an aunt cooed "What a little lady!" This ladylike attitude furthered Sarris' sex appeal claims, admitting that the scene when she shares a carriage with Preston Foster on the train in Unfinished Business was practically his "rite of passage" to a sex scene in a film, theorizing that the sex appeal of Dunne came from "a good girl deciding thoughtfully to be bad". On the blatant eroticism of the same train scene, Megan McGurk wrote, "The only thing that allowed this film to pass the censors was that good-girl Irene Dunne can have a one-night stand with a random because she loves him, rather than just a once-off fling. For most other women of her star magnitude, you could not imagine a heroine without a moral compass trained on true north. Irene Dunne elevates a tawdry encounter to something justifiably pure or blameless. She's just not the casual sex type, so she gets away with it." When approached about the nickname in 1936, Dunne admitted that it had grown tiresome but approved if it was meant as "the feminine counterpart of 'gentleman'"; a later interview she did have with the Los Angeles Times would ironically be titled "Irene Dunne, Gentlewoman". She would also be made a Dame (or Lady) of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre. The Los Angeles Times referred to Dunne's publicity in their obituary as trailblazing, noting her as one of the first actors to become a freelancer in Hollywood during its rigid studio system through her "non-exclusive contract that gave her the right to make films at other studios and to decide who should direct them," and her involvement with the United Nations as a decision that allowed entertainers from movies and television to branch out into philanthropy and politics, such as Ronald Reagan and George Murphy.
Dunne later said, "Cary Grant always said that I had the best timing of anybody he ever worked with." Lucille Ball admitted at an American Film Institute seminar that she based her comedic skills on Dunne's performance in Joy of Living. When asked about life after retiring from baseball, Lou Gehrig stated that he would want Dunne as a screen partner if he ever became a movie actor. Charles Boyer described her as "a gracious house", adding, "...the best room would be the music room [...] Great music, and the best of good swing, and things by Gershwin would sound there always. The acoustics would be perfect. Guests in this house would be relaxed and happy but they would have to mind their manners." A two-sided marker was erected in Dunne's childhood hometown of Madison in 2006.
Awards and nominations
Dunne received five Best Actress nominations during her career: for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948); she was the first actor to lose against the same actor in the same category twice, losing to Best Actress winner Louise Rainer in 1936 and 1937. When asked if she ever resented never winning, Dunne pointed out that the nominees she was up against had strong support, believing that she would never have had a chance, especially when Love Affair was against Gone with the Wind.
However, Dunne was honored numerous times for her philanthropy from Catholic organizations and schools, receiving the University of Notre Dame's Laetare Medal, the Bellarmine Medal from Bellarmine College, and received seven honorary doctorates, including from Chicago Musical College (for music), Loyola University and Mount St. Mary's College (both for Law). In 1953, she and her husband were made Lady and Knight of the Holy Sepulchre, respectively. For her film career, she was honored by the Kennedy Center, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6440 Hollywood Blvd, and displays in the Warner Bros. Museum and Center for Motion Picture Study.
|Chicago Musical College honorary Doctor of Music||1945|
|NCCJ's American Brotherhood Award||1948|
|Protestant Motion Picture Council Award|
|American Motherhood Pictures Award|
|Los Angeles Times Woman of the Year|
|Dame of the Holy Sepulchre||1953|
|Honorary member of the Madison Chamber of Commerce||1954|
|International Best Dressed List||1958|
|Indiana's Woman of the Year|
|Loyola University honorary Law degree|
|St. Mary's College honorary Law degree||1964|
|Colorado Women of Achievement||1968|
|Irene Dunne Guild bust||1985|
|Kennedy Center Honoree|
"Lovely to Look At" was the only song Dunne performed in a non-musical movie that entered the charts, peaking at number 20 in 1935.
Songs from the Pen of Jerome Kern
Decca Records released Dunne's only album, titled Irene Dunne in Songs from the Pen of Jerome Kern, which contained recordings of six show tunes composed by Jerome Kern. It was recorded between July 16 and August 24, 1941, with Victor Young's orchestra, making Dunne another singing movie star to create a Jerome Kern album.