Irene Dunne

First Lady of Hollywood

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Irene Dunne was nicknamed the First Lady of Hollywood because of her elegance and style. She was one of the greatest Old Hollywood comediennes and actresses and has been an audience favorite during her career that spanned more than six decades

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Beginnings

Irene Marie Dunn was born on December 20, 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents were of Irish-American ancestry on her father’s side and of German descent on the side of her mother. Her father was a steamboat engineer for the US government, whereas her mother was a pianist and music teacher. Irene had one younger brother by the name of Charles. 

Unfortunately, Irene’s father died from a kidney infection, when she was only fourteen years old. Subsequently, they moved to Madison, Indiana, where Irene’s mother had grown up and would live nearby her grandparents. 

One of the major themes of Irene’s childhood was music. Her mother had taught her to play the piano when she was still a very small child and as Dunne would put it: “Music was as natural as breathing in our house.“ Additionally, she would also take up singing lessons when she got bitten by the performance bug during her first school production of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream and would subsequently perform and sing in local churches and school plays before graduating from school at age 18. 

And it was also music that Irene wanted to pursue for a living. So, she went on to study to become a music teacher at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music, from which she graduated in 1918 at age 20. Afterwards she auditioned at the Chicago Musical College and actually won a college scholarship. After completing her studies at age 22, she went to New York City to become a soprano opera singer, but failed two auditions with the Metropolitan Opera Company. The reason? IT was her inexperience as well as her „slight“ voice. 

Start on Broadway

Dunne, determined to make a career in music, took more singing lessons and added dancing lessons as well to create a possible career in musical theater. She would make her Broadway debut in 2022 at age 24 as the understudy to Peggy Wood for the role of Tessie in Zelda Sear’s The Clinging Vine and would eventually take over the role in 1924, went Wood took a leave of absence. Other supporting roles, understudies and replacements followed until she finally had her first leading role in Luckee Girl in 1928, when she was 30 years old. 

After meeting and winning over Florenz Ziegfeld, she scored the starring role of Magnolia Hawks in a road adaptation of Show Boat. Actually, she would later star in the movie adaptation in 1936 as well. One of her performances was attended by a talent scout for RKO Pictures and he signed 32 year-old Dunne to the studio. As Dunne was considerably older than many other starlets, Dunne herself would try to evade media questions about her age and the studio’s publicists encouraged the belief that she was born only anytime between 1901 and 1904 – so, making her up to 5 years younger than she actually was. 

Hollywood

Irene Dunne’s first movie for RKO was 1930’s Leathermecking. But as the era of Hollywood musicals was already coming to an end around this time, Dunne was cast primarily for dramatic roles during the Pre-Code era. This proved successful as her role in Cimarron in 1931 earned her the first of five Best Actress nominations. 

After four years with RKO, Dunne changed studios and signed a two-year contract with Warner Bros. in 1934. During that time, she filmed two musical films, Sweet Adeline and Roberta as well as the movie adaptation of Show Boat in 1936. And then, Irene Dunne went freelance and did not sign any exclusive studio contract. Her first movie as a freelancer was for Columbia Pictures in the comedy Theodora Goes Wild. This was Dunne’s first comedy role and she like the production process a lot. The icing on the cake? She received her second Academy Award nomination for it. 

Movie Stardom

After having gotten a feel for comedy, Dunne followed the success of Theodora Goes Wild up with other romantic and comedy roles; amongst theme were The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife, Penny Serenade, Love Affair, When Tomorrow Comes and Together Again. She played most successfully opposite Charles Boyer and Cary Grant and made three movies with each of them. Although Irene Dunne has been hailed as one of the finest comediennes of Hollywood, she actually never thought much of it, never valued it as real art as it came naturally to her. 

When WWII started, Irene Dunne, like many of her contemporary Hollywood stars, turned her focus to the war effort and would engage in celebrity war bond tours  and would followed it up with two war-themed movies: A Guy named Joe, which became one of the most successful films of the year 1943, and The White Cliffs of Dover. She said about this time herself: “This is no time for comedy. I’m now a saleswoman, I sell bonds.“ 

After an unsuccessful return to comedy in 1945 with the movie Over 21, Irene Dunne returned to ladylike and motherly roles just like the one she had when she started out with Cimarron. She would receive her fifth and final Academy Award nomination for the role of Marta Hanson in 1948’s I Remember Mama. Three more movies followed: Never a Dull Moment and The Mudlark in 1950 and It Grows on Trees in 1952. Even though Irene Dunne never officially retired from the movies, she would not appear in a film again although she remained open for suitable roles and scripts – they just never came along. Dunne is widely regarded as one of the most talented actresses who never received an Academy Award. Critics believe that her exceptional performances have been undervalued and mostly overlooked, frequently eclipsed by subsequent remakes and more famous co-stars. All in all 11 of her movies have been remade and, thus, took away the attention from the original.

Radio and TV

Instead of waiting for the right movie, Irene Dunne stayed busy. For one, she and Fred MacMurray would be the stars of the 52-episode comedy-drama Bright Star on radio which aired between 1952 and 1953. And, just like many others, Dunne would turn to TV for the right roles and so she hosted and appeared in episodes of television anthologies like Ford Theatre, General Electric Theater, the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars as well as Saints and Sinners in 1962, which would be her last screen credit at age 64.

Life after Hollywood

Life after Hollywood for Irene Dunne was pretty much devoted to humanitarianism and political activism. 

Already during WWII, Dunne had joined the Beverly Hills United Service Organization and co-founded the Clark Gable Hollywood Victory Committee. After her de facto retirement from Hollywood, she was active with a variety of organizations: the American Cancer Society, the Los Angeles Orphanage and the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. 

She served as president of Santa Monica’s St. John’s Hospital and Health Clinic from 1950 to 1966. In 1987, she founded the Irene Dunne Guild, which was and still remains „instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services at St. John’s.“ 

Duane became a board member of Technicolor in 1965, the first woman ever to be elected to this board of directors. She also built an African American school for Los Angeles and was appointed chairwoman for the American Heart Association’s women’s committee.

As Dunne herself said in 1951: “If I began living in Hollywood today, I would certainly do one thing that I did when I arrived, and that is to be active in charity. If one is going to take something out of a community—any community—one must put something in, too.“

Religion

This is quite in line with the religious beliefs of Irene Dunne, who was a faithful and practicing Roman Catholic who would eventually even go to communion daily. In 1953, she and her her husband Francis Griffin would be awarded the papal knighthoods as Dame and Knight of the Holy Sepulchre. This honor is only bestowed on those that have distinguished themselves by concern for the Christians of the Holy Land. Membership is invitation only and includes many monarches, crown princes and heads of states – even today. Irene Dunne was most active to enhance Catholic women’s education. She was a huge supporter of women.

United Nations

Next to humanitarian efforts, Irene Dunne found great interest in the United Nations and devoted much of her time and effort to it – just like Myrna Loy did. 

In 1957, Dunne was appointed by President Eisenhower to be one of five alternative U.S. delegates to the United Nations. The reasons for her appointment? Her interest in international affairs as well as Roman Catholic and Republican causes. The most important reason for Dunne to join the United Nations was its dedication to world peace. She held her delegate position at the UN for two years, which she described as „the highlight of (her) life“. She would address the General Assembly twice during her time at the UN.

Irene Dunne died on September 4, 1990 at the age of 91. The funeral was very private and the only celebrity to attend was long-time family friend Loretta Young. 

Romantic Relationships

Fritz Ernst – When Irene Dunne was 21 years old, she would start dating a businessman from Chicago, who was 20 years her senior. Fritz Ernst belonged to one of the richest families in Madison, Indiana. During their two years together, they would often write letters while Dunne was training for her musical career. But when Ernst proposed, Dunne declined the proposal – mainly because she wanted to focus on her career. Nevertheless, these two stayed in contact and would regularly write each other until Ernst’s death in 1959, when Dunne was already 61 years old.

Dr. Francis Griffin– Two years after the breakup with Ernst, in 1924, 25 year-old Dunne met Dr. Francis Griffin, a dentist from Massachusetts. After three years they eventually got married. What they had planned for marriage went quite different once they got hitched. Because Dunne had promised Griffin to consider retiring from acting sometime in the future and Griffin to support her acting until then. But that was before Dunne starred in Show Boat and became one of the greatest actresses of Old Hollywood Cinema. Griffin did not want to take that away from her or as Griffith himself would put it: „(…) I didn’t feel I could ask her to drop her career. [I] really didn’t think marriage and the stage were compatible but we loved each other and we were both determined to make our marriage work.“

And determined they were. Big time. At first, they lived together in New York and Dunne worked from there. But after Cimarron, Dunne and her mother moved to Los Angeles, maintaining a long-distance relationship with Griffin until he joined her in LA in 1936. They would also try to be together and make the marriage work. Again, Griffith described their dynamic really beautifully with the following words: “When she had to go on location for a film I arranged my schedule so I could go with her. When I had to go out of town she arranged her schedule so she could be with me. We co-operate in everything. […] I think a man married to a career woman in show business has to be convinced that his wife’s talent is too strong to be dimmed or put out. Then, he can be just as proud of her success as she is and, inside he can take a bow himself for whatever help he’s been.“ And that hard work, because marriage is work, paid off. Never was there a scandal, an affair or any kind of danger to their marriage. They enjoyed their joint hobbies of astronomy and playing golf regularly. To complete their family union, the pair adopted daughter Mary Frances in 1936. They lived together in a house they had designed together until Griffin’s death on October 14, 1965, after 41 years together.

Friendships

As a kid Irene had few friends as she rather played the piano and took frequent music lessons. But during her adult life, she had many great friends – both from the likes of Californian business people as well as from the Hollywood season. 

Good friends of hers were Loretta Young, James Stewart, Bob Hope, Rosalind Russell, Van Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Carole Lombard and George Stevens Jr.

Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne formed a formidable deep friendship from the time they starred together in Love Affair, they would even write and gosh about each other in essays in an issue of Photoplay. 

Director, Screenwriter and producer Leo McCarey and Irene Dunne bonded over their humor, their religious backgrounds, music and their Irish ancestry. 

Style

Irene Dunne’s father had given his daughter one final advice 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. So don’t reach out wildly for this and that and the other thing. You’ll end up empty-handed if you do. Make up your mind what you want. Go after it. And be prepared to pay well for it. I hope that you’ll go after the rooted things: the self-respect that comes when we accept our share of responsibility. Satisfying work. Marriage. A home. A family. For these are the things that grow better with time, not less. These things are the bulwarks of happiness.“ Dunne quotes this in an interview with American Magazine in 1944. 

And that is probably also what stayed with Dunne for the rest of her life. Her motivation to make her marriage last and create a family, her dedication to religion, humanitarianism and the United Nations fighting for world peace, her even-keeled personality and her clear sense of what is right and wrong proves this. 

Dunne was nicknamed the „First Lady of Hollywood“ because she was the epitome of style and elegance – by far one of the most fashion-conscious women in Hollywood. In an article by Marian Young for the Manitowoc Herald Times in 1940 Dunne is quotes saying: “I must admit “that there are times when I don´t feel particularly in the mood to dress carefully. But I have a husband who always showers, shaves and grooms himself in shiny fashion the minute he gets up in the morning. You just can´t go downstairs in a bathrobe and curlers to face a man who looks like the hero in a soap ad. As a matter of fact, I think a husband has more to do with whether or not his wife is chic than either perhaps realizes. Show me a man who notices his wife´s clothes and discusses them with her or who draws her attention to what other women at a party are wearing and I´ll show you a woman who will become smarter and smarter as the years go on.“ 

Her style tips are really handy and still apply today, as they are timeless: 

Be honest about your body! What are your flaws? What are your highlights?

What type of woman are you? Feminine? Sports-minded? Self-sufficient? Practical? Homemaker? Once again: Be honest!

What is your setting? What are you doing and where are you going day in and day out!

Select one color scheme that you can easily adapt for winter and summer to save on clothes. 

Miscellaneous

  • Irene Dunne’s birth name was „Dunn“. She would add the extra „e“ only in 1928 as that was the way her name had often been misspelled. Ironically, once she had added the „e“, many times it would be reverse misspelled, omitting the „e“. 
  • She was a presenter at the 1950 BAFTAs and represented Hollywood for the 12th Venice International Film Festival in 1951.
  • She presented at Disneyland’s „DedicationDay“ in 1955 and christened the Mark Twain Riverboat
  • Dunne christened the SS Carole Lombard with Louis B. Mayer and Clark Gable in attendance.
  • She was appointed member of the California Art Commission between 1967 and 1970. During her tenure she developed a museum exhibit for visually impaired visitors. She would also record a talking booklet explaining the history of the sculptures. 
  • As a kid in school, Irene Dunne had been nicknamed „Dunnie“ and describes as „divinely tall and most divinely fair“. 

With all my love!

xx

Kate

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