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Remembering Five-Time Best Actress Oscar Nominee Irene Dunne

Irene DunneIrene Dunne movies: Five-time Best Actress Academy Award nominee starred in now-forgotten originals of well-remembered remakes

In his August 2007 Bright Lights article "The Elusive Pleasures of Irene Dunne," Dan Callahan explained that "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." (Photo: Irene Dunne publicity shot ca. 1938.)

Although Callahan’s article is a must-read for Irene Dunne fans — or any fan of classic movies — I don’t quite agree with several of his statements. For instance, for over a decade a couple of dozen Irene Dunne movies have been available in decent (or better) prints on Turner Classic Movies, whose parent company Time Warner owns the RKO movie library. Dunne was an RKO contract player from about 1930 to 1939; during that period, she received two Best Actress Academy Award nominations for her work in RKO releases: Wesley Ruggles’ epic Western Cimarron (1931), with Richard Dix, and Leo McCarey’s romantic comedy-drama Love Affair (1939), opposite Charles Boyer. In addition, Dunne earned two more Oscar nods for the Columbia screwball comedies Theodora Goes Wild (1936), directed by Richard Boleslawski and co-starring Melvyn Douglas, and The Awful Truth (1937), also directed by McCarey and co-starring Cary Grant. (Check this out: Irene Dunne was one of the many deserving women bypassed by the Academy’s Honorary Oscar.)

I should add that Rouben Mamoulian’s musical High, Wide and Handsome, co-starring Randolph Scott and Dorothy Lamour, was restored in the 1990s — unfortunately, it’s hardly one of Irene Dunne’s best films or performances. And bear in mind that the very Catholic, very Republican Dunne’s private life was considerably more complex than Callahan’s article implies. Once again: my few qualms notwithstanding, Callahan’s six-year-old Irene Dunne piece is a must-read.

Best Irene Dunne movies and performances

Irene Dunne — lively, pretty, hilarious in comedies, achingly sincere in dramas — was one of the best, most versatile Hollywood actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. Curiously, Dunne made the transition from stage to film in her early 30s, an age when many Hollywood actresses back in those days were being pushed into retirement. (Admittedly, Dunne and/or RKO did lie about her age. Her birthdate was variously listed as 1907, 1904, or, more recently, 1901. She was actually born on December 20, 1898, in Louisville, Kentucky.)

Recommended Irene Dunne movies include John M. Stahl’s Back Street (1932), with Dunne suffering as The Other Woman in love with married man John Boles; James Whale’s musical Show Boat (1936), with Dunne suffering and singing as the Woman Left Behind by Allan Jones; John Cromwell’s Anna and the King of Siam (1946), with Dunne’s Anna quietly stealing the show from Rex Harrison’s mannered Siamese King; Michael Curtiz’s period family comedy Life with Father (1947), with Dunne’s Mother living with and trying to convince Father William Powell to get himself baptized; and George Stevens’ family drama I Remember Mama (1948), with Dunne as the Academy Award-nominated Mama of the title — her fifth and final Oscar nod.

Irene Dunne movie remakes

Irene Dunne movies later remade with other actresses include Cimarron (Maria Schell, 1960), Back Street (Margaret Sullavan, 1941; Susan Hayward, 1961), The Age of Innocence (Michelle Pfeiffer in Martin Scorsese’s 1993 version), Roberta (Kathryn Grayson in Lovely to Look At, 1952), Magnificent Obsession (Jane Wyman, 1954), Show Boat (Kathryn Grayson, 1951), and The Awful Truth (Jane Wyman in Let’s Do It Again, 1953).

Here are a few more titles: Love Affair (Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember, 1957; Annette Bening in Love Affair, 1994), My Favorite Wife (Doris Day in Move Over, Darling, 1963; Marilyn Monroe in the unfinished Something’s Got to Give, 1962), A Guy Named Joe (Holly Hunter in Steven Spielberg’s Always, 1989), and Anna and the King of Siam (Deborah Kerr in The King and I, 1956; Jodie Foster in Anna and the King, 1999).

Later years: Irene Dunne mini-bio

Irene Dunne’s last movie was Arthur Lubin’s box office disappointment It Grows on Trees (1952), a comedy featuring Dean Jagger. Later in the decade, Dunne was one of president Dwight Eisenhower’s appointed U.S. delegates to the United Nations. Throughout her life a supporter of various Catholic, Republican, and charitable causes and institutions, she founded the Irene Dunne Guild at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. According to their website, “the Irene Dunne Guild is instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services” at St. John’s.

Dunne was married to Dr. Francis Griffin from 1928 to his death on October 15, 1965. The couple, however, lived apart for long stretches. After years in ill health, during which time she underwent painful treatments, Irene Dunne died on September 4, 1990, at her home in Los Angeles’ posh Holmby Hills district.

Irene Dunne movies more widely available

A number of Irene Dunne movies have become more widely available in recent years. The Awful Truth has been restored and a pristine print can now be found on DVD. Dunne’s Universal release Show Boat has been shown on Turner Classic Movies, along with her Columbia movies (Theodora Goes Wild, Together Again), while Dunne’s version of Magnificent Obsession has been available on DVD for some time. Co-starring Richard Dix, Stingaree (1934), unseen for decades, has been restored and presented on TCM.

And finally, Love Affair looks like it has been upgraded as well. According to film historian Joseph Yranski, who was friends with Irene Dunne, she had an excellent print of Love Affair in her private movie collection.

Note: A version of “Remembering Five-Time Best Actress Oscar Nominee Irene Dunne” was originally posted in August 2007.

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2 Comments to Irene Dunne Movies: Five-Time Best Actress Oscar Nominee Remembered

  1. Pat Hobby

    Dan Callahan was correct about Dunne’s films being unavailable when it mattered - the 1950s - 1980s when classic films were widely shown on broadcast television, many of the classic film stars were still alive and permanent reputations and legacies were being made.

    Here is an interesting article about how difficult it was to put on an Irene Dunne film program at the Los Angeles COunty Museum of Art in 1971.
    http://www.irenedunnesite.com/press/film-fan-monthly-februrary-1971/

    I remember seeing “Roberta” on KTLA Channel 5 in Los Angeles when it was shown on TV for the first time and this was the late 70s.

  2. Thank for for doing a profile of Irene Dunne. She certainly is underappreciated and her views underseen. I’ve always loved her in the Awful Truth, where she more than holds her own against Cary Grant, in many ways she’s in much more control than he is. Love Affair is the film that made me truly appreciate her talents though. All at once she’s funny, romantic and selfless. A beautiful film.







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