By Jessica Pickens
Of the actresses of the classic Hollywood era, there are few better than Irene Dunne. Dunne is also one of the most overlooked; you don’t hear about her as often as you may her contemporaries like Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, or Carole Lombard.
In her film career that spanned from 1930 to 1952, Dunne performed in it all. 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.
Dunne also retired from movies in 1952. Studios often tried to coax her out of retirement in roles like the aunt in “Gigi” (1958), but she always declined, though she made television appearances until 1962. Another reason Dunne’s career often gets overlooked is because so many of her films were remade into large budget films in the 1950s after she ended her film career. Of her 42 films, here is a sampling of what was remade:
“Anna and the King of Siam” (1946) was remade into the splashy Technicolor Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King and I” (1956).
“Love Affair” (1939) was retold twice after her original film: “Affair to Remember” (1957) with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant—this is the version most people know. It was again remade in 1994 with the original title, “Love Affair.”
Most people forget Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor’s 1935 version of “Magnificent Obsession,” only knowing the 1954 Douglas Sirk film starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson.
Dunne showed off her operatic skills in a 1936 version of “Show Boat,” but the MGM’s Arthur Freed produced 1951 version is better known.
“Roberta” (1935) starring Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Randolph Scott, was also updated by MGM as “Lovely to Look At” (1952)
“Cimaron” (1931) was remade in 1960 with the same title.
And finally, “The Awful Truth” (1937), was made into a musical called “Let’s Do It Again” (1953) starring Jane Wyman and Ray Milland, though I think most people want to forget this one.
“My Favorite Wife” (1940) was to be remade with Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse and Dean Martin as “Something’s Got To Give” (1962). After Monroe died, the film was shelved. It was then remade with Doris Day, James Garner and Polly Bergen as “Move Over, Darling” (1963).
While Dunne’s career seems to be overshadowed by remakes, here are some movies to rent that best highlight her career:
In only her second role, Irene Dunne is the leading lady of this Best Picture winner. Dunne plays Sabra, wife of Yancey Cravey (Richard Dix). They married and head to settle in the boom town of Oklahoma . Yancey starts a successful weekly newspaper, but he can’t be pinned down and leaves his wife and children. Sabra continues to run the newspaper in Yancey’s absence. Yancey comes and goes from Sabra’s life, and she continues to run the business and gain prominence, including becoming the first female congresswoman for Oklahoma. “Cimarron” is an adaption of Edna Ferber’s novel that spans 40 years: from 1889 to 1929. Though this is only Dunne’s second film, her star power is already evident as she plays the strong character of Sabra.
John Kent (Randolph Scott) inherits a Paris dress store, run by Stephanie (Irene Dunne). His friend Huck Haines (Fred Astaire) runs into an old flame, Lizzie Gatz (Ginger Rogers), who is a customer at Madame Roberta’s dress shop. John falls for Stephanie, while Huck rekindles his romance with Lizzie.
“Roberta” is a lighthearted musical, that the third pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and is more a vehicle for the dancing pair, than anything else. However, I like this Astaire and Rogers film because it’s different than their other movies that only focus on them and the usual character actors (Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, etc). The addition of Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne’s romance strengthens this film, and we also have the opportunity to hear Irene Dunne sing, something that most people aren’t aware of if you haven’t seen her early films. This film features the famous Astaire and Rogers song “I Won’t Dance,” and Irene Dunne sings “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” While this movie was remade by MGM in 1951, “Roberta” is the better version.
(Seemingly) straight-laced Theodora (Dunne) is a Sunday school teacher and church organist in a small-town. The town is thrown into an uproar when a local writes a risqué novel. No one knows who wrote it because it’s under a pen name—but it was written by Theodora. When she goes on a trip to New York to see her publisher, she meets the book’s illustrator, Michael (Melvyn Douglas), who follows her to her hometown, putting her at risk of people finding out that she is the author of the book.
In the grand scheme of screwball comedies, somehow “Theodora Goes Wild” is often forgotten, but I think it’s one of the funniest and the best. After years of starring in what were called “weepers” (sad, dramatic movies) and musicals, this was Irene Dunne’s break out comedic role. Her performance gained her an Academy Award nomination and solidified her as a comedic actress, paving the way for comedies like “The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife” (1940). Melvyn Douglas is a great comedic partner for Dunne and this film is hysterical.
Husband and wife Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Dunne) are suspicious of each other, especially after they both realize neither was where they said they were. Jerry said he was on a trip in Florida (he wasn’t) and Lucy wasn’t at home (she was in the country with another man). Their suspicions bring them to a divorce. And even though they have divorced, they both keep each other from having a new romance or remarrying, because they still love each other.
“The Awful Truth” is the first of three films that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne would make together. “The Awful Truth” is a laugh-out-loud comedy and is one of the best comedies either Grant or Dunne made in their career. It was also one of the first times Grant used a light-comedic manner, which helped boost his career.
Michel (Charles Boyer) and Terry (Dunne) meet on a ship voyage and fall in love. When they arrive home in New York City, the two decide to meet in six months atop the Empire State Building. This will give them enough time to tie up their affairs and determine if this was just a shipboard romance. On her way to the visit, Terry is hit by a car and told by doctors she may never walk again. Not wanting to burden Michel with her condition, she doesn’t contact him.
This would qualify as one of Irene Dunne’s “weepers” but also has some light and romantic moments. “Love Affair” and “An Affair to Remember” are very similar. And while I like both and they each have excellent casts, there’s something about Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne together that I love. An added bonus is that this film was released in 1939—just another fantastic movie from what is known as Hollywood’s “Best Year.”
At the start of the film Julie (Dunne) is packing her bags to leave her husband Roger (Grant). She stops to reflect on what brought them to their current state, listening to records that reminds her of a different memory during their marriage. With each record, the audience is taken into a retrospective scene. We see Julie and Roger as they meet, fall in love and try to have their first child. While living in Japan, Julie is pregnant but is injured during an earthquake, losing her baby and any other chance of having her own child. The couple works to prove they are financially fit to adopt a child, which leaves them with both happiness and heartaches.
If I had to pick a favorite film by Irene Dunne or Cary Grant, this would be it. However, this isn’t a very well-known film from either of their careers. This is also a film of choice if you need a good cry. “Penny Serenade” will really tug at your heart strings as Dunne and Grant try hard to have their own child and then work to be approved for an adoption. It has some funny moments, but largely is a very sweet and also heartbreaking film. Even though it makes me sad, it’s one I come back to time and time again. If I had to pick just one movie from this list of Irene Dunne films to encourage anyone to watch, it would be “Penny Serenade.”
In San Francisco in 1910, the film follows a Norwegian immigrant family through joys and sorrows. It is a coming of age tale for the children of the family and is narrated by Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes). Martha Hanson, or Mama, (Irene Dunne) is the glue that holds the family together. Each night, the Mama counts the family’s finances to make sure they are financially secure. The family often has to make sacrifices to meet ends meet or to reach their goals—like saving to go to school.
This is the last of five Academy Award nominations that Dunne received and is one of her last films. The film is made up of various stories and circumstances the family gets into. After years of playing glamorous leading ladies, Dunne is a tired and modest mother of four children. This is a really heartwarming film and it’s hard to describe just how lovely it is.
What’s your favorite Irene Dunne film?
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.