Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne

Infobox actor
name = Irene Dunne

imagesize = 200px
caption = from the film "Love Affair" (1939)
birthname = Irene Marie Dunn
birthdate = birth date|1898|12|20|mf=y
birthplace = Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
yearsactive = 1922 - 1962
deathdate = death date and age|1990|9|4|1898|12|20|mf=y
deathplace = Los Angeles, California, U.S.
spouse = Francis Dennis Griffin

Irene Dunne (December 20, 1898 - September 4, 1990) was a five-time Academy Award-nominated American film actress and singer of the 1930s and 1940s.

Early life

Born Irene Marie Dunne in Louisville, Kentucky to Joseph Dunn, a steamboat inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Henry, a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky, Irene Dunne would later write, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father." She was only eleven when her father died in 1909. She saved all of his letters and often 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.""Hats, Hunches and Happiness", by Irene Dunne, Picturegoer Magazine, February 17, 1945]

After her father's death, she, her mother and younger brother Charles moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana. 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." Nicknamed "Dunnie," she took piano and voice lessons, sang in local churches and high school plays before her graduation in 1916.

She earned a diploma to teach art, but took a chance on a contest and won a prestigious scholarship to the Chicago Musical College. She had hopes of becoming an opera singer, but did not pass an audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company.


Dunne turned to musical theater, making her Broadway debut in 1922 in Zelda Sear's "The Clinging Vine". [ [ The Clinging Vine] , Internet Broadway Database] The following year, Dunne played a season of light opera in Atlanta, Georgia. Though, in her own words, Dunne created "no great furor," and by 1929 she was playing leading roles in a successful Broadway career, grateful that she was never in the chorus line.

Dunne met her future husband, Francis Griffin, a New York dentist, at a supper dance in New York. Despite differing opinions and battles that raged furiously, Dunne eventually agreed to marry him and leave the theater. They were wed on July 16, 1928.

Dunne's role as Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "Show Boat" was the result of a chance meeting with showman Florenz Ziegfeld in an elevator the day she returned from her honeymoon. Dunne was discovered by Hollywood while starring with the Chicago company of the musical in 1929. She signed a contract with RKO and appeared in her first movie in 1930, "Leathernecking", an early musical. She moved to Hollywood with her mother and brother, and maintained a long-distance marriage with her husband in New York until he joined her in California in 1936. That year, she re-created her role as Magnolia in what is considered the classic film version of "Show Boat".

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dunne blossomed into a popular screen heroine in movies such as "Back Street" (1932), and "Magnificent Obsession" (1935). The first of several films she made opposite Charles Boyer, "Love Affair" (1939) was one of her best. She sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in the 1935 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film version of the musical "Roberta".

She was apprehensive about attempting her first comedy role, as the title character in "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936), but discovered that she enjoyed it. [Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies introduction to the film.] She turned out to possess an exceptional aptitude for comedy. The unique Dunne trademark flair for combining elegance and madcap comedy is seen at its best in such films as "The Awful Truth" (1937), "My Favorite Wife" (1940) and "Penny Serenade" (1941), all three opposite Cary Grant. Other notable roles include Anna Leonowens in "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946), Lavinia Day in "Life with Father" (1947), and Martha Hanson in "I Remember Mama" (1948). In "The Mudlark" (1950), Dunne was nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Queen Victoria. She retired from the screen in 1952, after "It Grows on Trees", a comedy about a couple who discover that money "does" grow on trees, at least in their back yard.

Shortly after "It Grows on Trees" opened, she performed as the opening act on the 1953 March of Dimes showcase in New York City. While in town, she made her first appearance as the mystery guest on "What's My Line?". She made television performances on "Ford Theatre", "General Electric Theater", and the "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars", continuing to act until 1962.

Dunne commented in an interview that she had lacked the "terrifying ambition" of some other actresses and said, "I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is." [Shipman, David, "Movie Talk", St Martin's Press, 1988. ISBN; p 37]

Later life

In 1957, Dwight David Eisenhower appointed Dunne one of five alternative U.S. delegates to the United Nations in recognition of her charitable works and interest in conservative Catholic and Republican causes. In her retirement, Dunne devoted herself primarily to civic, philanthropic, and Republican political causes. In 1965, Dunne became a board member of Technicolor, the first woman ever elected to the board of directors.

Dunne remained married to Dr. Griffin until his death on October 15, 1965. They lived in Holmby Hills, California in a Southern plantation-style mansion that they designed. They had one daughter, Mary Frances (née Anna Mary Bush), who was adopted in 1938 from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity of New York. ["Irene Dunne Adopts Baby: Actress Formally Becomes Foster-Mother of Girl, 4", The New York Times, 17 March 1938, p. 17] Both Dunne and her husband were ordained Knights of Malta.

One of her last public appearances was in April 1985, when she attended the dedication of a bust in her honor at St. John's (Roman Catholic) Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for which her foundation, The Irene Dunne Guild, had raised more than $20 million.


Dunne died peacefully at her Holmby Hills home in Los Angeles, California in 1990, and is entombed in the Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, California. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California.

Awards and nominations

Dunne has been described as the best actress to never win an Academy Award. She 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).

In 1985, she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors, Lifetime Achievement for a career that spanned three decades and a range of musical theater, the silver screen, Broadway, radio and television. Other honors include the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame University in 1949, the Bellarmine Medal from Bellarmine College in 1965 and Colorado's Women of Achievement in 1968. She has 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. [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, 2000, Gifts of Vanna Bonta]


* "Leathernecking" (1930)
* "Cimarron" (1931)
* "The Slippery Pearls" (1931) (short subject)
* "Bachelor Apartment" (1931)
* "The Great Lover" (1931)
* "Consolation Marriage" (1931)
* "Symphony of Six Million" (1932)
* "Back Street" (1932)
* "Thirteen Women" (1932)
* "No Other Woman" (1933)
* "The Secret of Madame Blanche" (1933)
* "The Silver Cord" (1933)
* "Ann Vickers" (1933)
* "Only Yesterday" (1933)
* "If I Were Free" (1933)
* "This Man Is Mine" (1934)
* "Stingaree" (1934)
* "The Age of Innocence" (1934)
* "Sweet Adeline" (1934)
* "Roberta" (1935)
* "Magnificent Obsession" (1935)
* "Show Boat" (1936)
* "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936)
* "High, Wide, and Handsome" (1937)
* "The Awful Truth" (1937)
* "Joy of Living" (1938)
* "Love Affair" (1939)
* "Invitation to Happiness" (1939)
* "When Tomorrow Comes" (1939)
* "My Favorite Wife" (1940)
* "Penny Serenade" (1941)
* "Unfinished Business" (1941)
* "Lady in a Jam" (1942)
* "Show Business at War" (1943) (short subject)
* "A Guy Named Joe" (1943)
* "The White Cliffs of Dover" (1944)
* "Together Again" (1944)
* "Over 21" (1945)
* "Anna and the King of Siam" (1946)
* "Life with Father" (1947)
* "I Remember Mama" (1948)
* "Never a Dull Moment" (1950)
* "The Mudlark" (1950)
* "You Can Change the World" (1951) (short subject)
* "It Grows on Trees" (1952)


* Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1951) Host
* General Electric Theater (1953) episode: "Go Fight City Hall" 10/15/1962
* Saints and Sinners (1962) episode: "Source of Information" 10/15/1962
* Frontier Circus (1961) episode: "Dr. Sam" 10/26/1961
* DuPont Show with June Allyson, The (1959) playing "Dr. Gina Kerstas", episode: "Opening Door, The" 10/5/1959
* Ford Theatre (1952) episode: "Sheila" 5/24/1956
* Letter to Loretta (1953) Host, episode: "Tropical Secretary" 5/24/1956
* Ford Theatre (1952) episode: "On the Beach" 5/24/1956
* Letter to Loretta (1953) Host, episode: "Slander" 10/30/1955
* Ford Theatre (1952) episode: "Touch of Spring" 2/3/1955
* Ford Theatre (1952) episode: "Sister Veronica" 4/15/1954


Further reading

* TCM Film Guide, "Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era", Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California, 2006.


* "Pursuits of Happiness", by Stanley Cavell, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981.
* "The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s", by Elizabeth Kendall, New York, 1990.
* "Irene Dunne: A Bio-Bibliography," by Margie Schultz, New York, 1991.
* "Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood," by Wes D. Gehring (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2003).
* "Irene Dunne: a bio-bibliography," by Margie Schultz (New York: Greenwood Press, 1991).
* "Fast-talking Dames," by Maria DiBattista (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).


* [ "I'm Still In Love With Irene Dunne"] , by Wes D. Gehring, USA Today, July 2003
* "Irene Dunne - Elegant Leading Lady of the Golden Age," by John Roberts; Films of the Golden Age (Fall, 1998, Issue #14) []
* "We Remember Irene," "Film Comment" (New York), by Richard Schickel, March/April 1991.
* "Irene Dunne: Nominee for The Awful Truth," "Architectural Digest" (Los Angeles), by Richard Schickel, April 1990.
* "Irene Dunne (1904–1990): A Bright Star," "Filmnews,"by Peter Kemp November 1990.
* "Irene Dunne, Top-rank Film Star of the '30s and '40s, Dead at 88," "Variety" (New York), 10 September 1990.
* "Irene Dunne: The Awesome Truth," "Film Comment" (New York), by James McCourt January/February 1980.
* Interview with J. Harvey, "Film Comment" (New York), January/February 1980.
* "Irene Dunne," interview with John Kobal, in Focus on Film (London), no. 28, 1977.
* "Hats - Hunches and Happiness" by Irene Dunne "Picturegoer", (England) February, 1945.
* "Irene Dunne: Native Treasure", "Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book", DeWitt Bodeen, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
* Irene Dunne, in Films in Review (New York), Madden, J. C., December 1969.

External links

* [ Kennedy Center] Biographical Info for Irene Dunne
* [ Irene Dunne] Film Reference by Jeanine Basinger
* [ Irene Dunne Bio] by Hal Erickson, Allmovie Guide
* [ Real Movie Stars] - Stanford University
* [ Photographs of Irene Dunne]

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