Nationality: American. Born: Irene Marie Dunn in Louisville, Kentucky, 20 December 1898. Education: Attended Chicago Musical College, diploma 1919. Family: Married Francis J. Griffin, 1928
Leathernecking ( Present Arms ) (Cline) (as Delphine); Cimarron (Ruggles) (as Sabra Cravat)
Bachelor Apartment (Sherman) (as Helene Andrews); Consolation Marriage ( Married in Haste ) (Sloane) (as Mary); The Great Lover (Beaumont) (as Diana Page)
The Stolen Jools ( The Slippery Pearls ) (McGann and others—short) (as guest); Symphony of Six Million ( Melody of Life ) (La Cava) (as Jessica); Back Street (Stahl) (as Ray Schmidt); Thirteen Women (Archainbaud) (as Laura Stanhope)
No Other Woman (Ruben) (as Anna Stanley); The Secret of Madame Blanche (Brabin) (as Sally); The Silver Cord (Cromwell) (as Christina Phelps); Ann Vickers (Cromwell) (title role); If I Were Free ( Behold We Live ) (Nugent) (as Sarah Cazenove)
This Man Is Mine (Cromwell) (as Toni Dunlap); Stingaree (Wellman) (as Hilda Bouverie); The Age of Innocence (Moeller) (as Countess Ellen Olenska)
Sweet Adeline (LeRoy) (as Adeline Schmidt); Roberta (Seiter) (as Stephanie); Magnificent Obsession (Stahl) (as Helen Hudson)
Show Boat (Whale) (as Magnolia Hawks); Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski) (as Theodora Lynn)
High, Wide, and Handsome (Mamoulian) (as Sally Watterson); The Awful Truth (McCarey) (as Lucy Warriner)
Joy of Living (Garnett) (as Margaret "Maggie" Garret)
Love Affair (McCarey) (as Terry McKay); Invitation to Happiness (Ruggles) (as Eleanor Wayne); When Tomorrow Comes (Stahl) (as Helen)
My Favorite Wife (Kanin) (as Ellen Arden)
Penny Serenade (Stevens) (as Julia Gardiner Adams); Unfinished Business (La Cava) (as Nancy Andrews)
Lady in a Jam (La Cava) (as Jane Palmer)
A Guy Named Joe (Fleming) (as Dorinda Durston)
The White Cliffs of Dover (Clarence Brown) (as Susan Dunn Ashwood); Together Again (Charles Vidor) (as Anne Crandall)
Over 21 (Charles Vidor) (as Paula Wharton)
Anna and the King of Siam (Cromwell) (as Anna)
Life with Father (Curtiz) (as Vinnie Day)
I Remember Mama (Stevens) (as Mama)
Never a Dull Moment (George Marshall) (as Kay); The Mudlark (Negulesco) (as Queen Victoria)
It Grows on Trees (Lubin) (as Polly Baxter)
"Irene Dunne," interview with John Kobal, in Focus on Film (London), no. 28, 1977.
Interview with J. Harvey, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1980.
Cavell, Stanley, Pursuits of Happiness , Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1981.
Kendall, Elizabeth, The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s , New York, 1990.
Schultz, Margie, Irene Dunne: A Bio-Bibliography , New York, 1991.
Current Biography 1945 , New York, 1945.
Madden, J. C., "Irene Dunne," in Films in Review (New York), December 1969.
Bodeen, DeWitt, "Irene Dunne: Native Treasure," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
McCourt, James, "Irene Dunne: The Awesome Truth," in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1980.
Schickel, Richard, "Irene Dunne: Nominee for The Awful Truth ," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1990.
Kemp, Peter, "Irene Dunne (1904–1990): A Bright Star," in Filmnews , November 1990.
"Irene Dunne, Top-rank Film Star of the '30s and '40s, Dead at 88," in Variety (New York), 10 September 1990.
Schickel, Richard, "We Remember Irene," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1991.
* * *
Irene Dunne is one of the most durable and delightful stars of Hollywood's golden period. Although she is most often associated with a series of excellent screwball comedies she made in the 1930s, she starred with equal success in melodramas and musicals. Her five Oscar nominations indicate her versatility across a range of genres: Cimarron , Theodora Goes Wild , The Awful Truth , Love Affair , and I Remember Mama .
Dunne originally studied to be an opera singer, but a failed audition at the Metropolitan Opera resulted in her choosing a musical comedy career instead. She toured in Irene , played several roles on Broadway (both musical and nonmusical), and joined the Chicago company of Show Boat as Magnolia in 1929. Her enormous success in that Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II favorite led to a Hollywood contract with RKO. From her film debut in Leathernecking to her retirement following It Grows on Trees , she played with equal grace and skill in musicals (the film version of Show Boat in 1936, High, Wide, and Handsome , Sweet Adeline , Roberta ), comedies ( Joy of Living , My Favorite Wife ), and serious drama ( Back Street , Magnificent Obsession , When Tomorrow Comes ).
Dunne began freelancing early in her career, picking her roles with care, alternating between drama and comedy, and searching for as many chances to sing on film as she could find. Some of her musical performances are indelible: the ethereal "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from Roberta with Dunne in white fur, and the achingly sweet "Make Believe" or crowd-rousing "After the Ball" from Show Boat are highlights. Her persona was that of the lady, but always the modern lady, with a sharp wit, imagination, and independence. She could combine and make believable a remarkable range of behavior and seemingly contradictory characteristics. She wore clothes with grace and style, but was never considered an actress who was merely a clotheshorse. She looked fragile and delicate, with a truly feminine beauty, but she was never weak or trivial. She played women with virtue, but she was never a prig and she projected feeling and passion in great love stories; her performances in Back Street and Love Affair make them the most haunting versions of these oft-filmed stories. She had dignity on screen, yet could be incredibly funny in slapstick sequences, displaying impeccable timing and excellent physical control; her outrageous impersonation of a "vulgar" nightclub performer in The Awful Truth is one of screwball comedy's funniest moments. Her screen personality has often been described by the word "captivating," as she charmed male and female viewers alike with her beauty, unusual speaking voice, and personal style.
After Dunne retired from the screen in 1952, she appeared on television, on Ford Theatre and the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars . In 1957, she was appointed by President Eisenhower (Dunne was a lifelong Republican) as an alternate delegate to the United Nations 12th General Assembly, and remained active in Catholic charities, for which she was awarded Notre Dame's Laetare Medal. In retrospect, Irene Dunne may be seen as an example of a type of actress that has almost disappeared from movies—a woman of intelligence and versatility who, no matter what the pressure, be it comic or tragic, keeps going with humor, elegance, and dignity.
—Jeanine Basinger, updated by Corey K. Creekmur