Irene Marie Dunne (December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American actress and singer famous during The Golden Age of Hollywood. She was nominated five times for an Academy Award but never won.
The Dunns (Irene put an “e” at the end when she entered the cinematic world) were a musical family, and Irene was taught singing and piano at an early age. Bent on being a professional singer (she had a soprano voice) and with a degree from the Chicago Music College, she hoped to sing with the Metropolitan Opera Company but was, unfortunately, turned down. Down but not beat, she went into musical theatre instead and became a sensation on Broadway with her biggest success being as Magnolia in Show Boat (replacing Norma Terris during the show's original run). In the late twenties, however, she was discovered by RKO and signed a contract with them.
During The Pre-Code Era, Dunne was put in pedestrian, dramatic fare, but with the advent of a new genre, the Screwball Comedy, Dunne began to shine in comedic vehicles, showing off her impeccable timing and wit. Although unwilling to go the comedy route, Dunne starred in the successful Theodora Goes Wild which was the stepping stone to greater things. The next year she co-starred with Cary Grant (a frequent co-star) in The Awful Truth. She reportedly didn’t like comedies much, preferring serious dramas, but she was considered a great comedienne, nevertheless.
Popular throughout The '30s and The '40s, Dunne was considered a great actress by the critics and her peers alike. A decline did come due to Hollywood's tendency to dispose of older actresses; however, Dunne decided to retire in the early fifties, her last film being It Grows on Trees.
She continued working, dedicating herself to charities. Also, she was chosen as the delegate to the United Nations by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
She died on September 4, 1990, having starred in over 50 films.
Irene Dunne films:
- Cimarron (1931)
- Thirteen Women (1932)
- The Silver Cord (1933)
- The Age of Innocence (1934)
- Roberta (1935)
- Show Boat (1936)
- Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
- The Awful Truth (1937)
- Love Affair (1939)
- My Favorite Wife (1940)
- Penny Serenade (1941)
- A Guy Named Joe (1943)
- Anna And The King Of Siam (1946)
- Life with Father (1947)
- I Remember Mama (1948)
- The Mudlark (1950)
Tropes associated with Irene Dunne's films:
- Award Snub: Considered this by many critics, to her Oscar nominations. More so for The Awful Truth nowadays, since the Best Actress winner, Luise Rainer, won for a role considered to have aged like milk these days.
- The Cast Showoff: Whenever the movie would pause to give Dunne a chance to sing to an audience.
- Cat Smile:
- Dunne could sport one◊ if she wanted to. Studio producer William Frye even referred to the look as "her impish smile" in his piece for Vanity Fair. The dimples in her cheeks made the grin more disarming.
- A drunk, partying Maggie in Joy of Living flashes several, most likely attempting to drunkenly flirt with Dan.
- Covert Pervert: A lot of her characters were this, surprising to some. Critics have noted that many of Dunne's films are full of moments other film stars wouldn't get away with in the era of The Hays Code, mostly because of her persona of the ladylike ingenue. Dunne was the one most likely to have the most innuendo in her dialog, and notably ended up sharing a bed with Cary Grant twice — a trope strictly forbidden. Strange double standards Dunne got away with include:
- In Theodora Goes Wild, she stars as a Sunday school teacher/church volunteer who turns out to be the author of a best-selling erotic novel.
- During a slow dance with Pete in A Guy Named Joe, she suddenly whispers a plea to nibble his ear, which he rebuffs in embarrassment.
- Love Affair implies that Terry has a history as sexually adventurous as ladykiller Michel, notably in their Meet Cute where she lightly ribs him of how terrible she thinks the location of his recent night of passion was.
- Dunne also had an interestingly sympathetic portrayal of a one-night stand in an era where flirtatious femme fatales got killed. The train carriage scene in Unfinished Business is best known for Dunne's Nancy getting aroused from the sounds of the train horn. Then she and Preston Foster passionately kiss and it cuts to the next morning when they're stepping off the train.
- In Together Again, Mayor Anne and George the sculptor go to a strip club, which gets raided by police when Anne excuses herself to the restroom to clean her dress. The police catch her in her underwear and throw her in jail for the night.
- Creator Backlash:
- Life with Father was offered to Dunne several times, but she hated Vinnie's ditziness. She eventually warmed up to the offer and accepted, although she'd often admit she still didn't like her in interviews years later.
- Inverted with The Mudlark where she was devastated it was a box-office bomb in the USA because it was a chance to method act with prosthetics.
- Although Love Affair was one of her favorites she made, she would say years later that Terry's Honor Before Reason attitude after the accident was ridiculous because if Dunne was in the situation, she'd wheel herself back to New York City every day to look for Michel.
- Creator's Oddball: Subverted. Dunne did so many film genres, she went through Tom Hanks Syndrome and Leslie Nielsen Syndrome several times. Sometimes in one year!
- Good Parents: Often starred as a fantastic mother and housewife with nice, selfless children — traits that they probably inherited. In some cases, she was the Team Mom of a group.
- Irony as She Is Cast:
- Dunne (a trained singer) starred in Anna and the King of Siam (a drama) in 1946 which was later remade as The King and I (a musical), which starred Deborah Kerr (whose singing was dubbed).
- Downplayed to an extent and lampshaded by the woman herself when The King and I opened in Broadway, when she sent a letter to Rogers and Hammerstein joking that they should've asked her to be in it if they needed extra singers, reminding them that she'd performed in Hammerstein's Show Boat on Broadway when she was younger.
- Comedy didn't interest Dunne, yet critics have declared she excelled the best in it. Her comic timing has been called her Charm Point.
- Noblewoman's Laugh: Her melodious giggle sounded like this a lot, especially if she was about to avenge or embarrass someone. A great example is in Theodora Goes Wild when she confronts her publisher, chuckling like this when she walks into the office in her feathered coat with her dog on a leash.
- Older Than They Look: Dunne was told to lie about her age (as she was much older than her contemporaries) and even her epitaph has the wrong year of her birth. To put in perspective, she was older than most Hollywood Golden Age Small Reference Pools actresses that can come to mind, and the only leading men she was younger than were William Powell (born in 1892) and Adolphe Menjou (born in 1890).
- Playing Against Type: Audiences that only know her for the popular comedies she did might be surprised to find out about Dunne's weepy beginnings, beginning her film streak in drama and ending in drama. In fact, comedy films were an anomaly in her career.
- Playing with Character Type: Her ambitious Silk Hiding Steel Nice Girl persona shows up in Together Again, but a business trip ends up with Mayor Anne falling for her hired sculptor. Despite Dunne's other hardworking characters not being sidetracked from their jobs by a love interest, Anne turns into a Smitten Teenage Girl, dressing and styling her hair differently, singing and dancing around the house, and is unable to think straight whenever the sculptor looks at her. Her former political popularity begins dimming as problems start piling up.
- Those Two Actors: She did three films with Cary Grant and Charles Boyer. Interestingly, she went through Actor Shipping with both, being dubbed the funniest Hollywood couple with Grant and the most romantic with Boyer.