Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood

It's time this
American original was honored

Editor's Note: This is the final installment of stories
previewing the May 19 Indiana Historical Marker
dedication ceremony for the late film actress,
Irene Dunne, who spent much of her youth living in
Madison, where she graduated high school. To
read our past coverage, visit the April story archives
of our website: www.RoundAboutMadison.com.

Wes D. Gehring
Guest writer

Witing screen biographies is greatly assisted by the fact that I am not unlike the central character in Walter Percy’s classic 1961 novel, "The Moviegoer." Who and what I am is forever connected with film. My favorite pieces of time are not just memories; they are movie memories.

Wes D. Gehring


For example, an ongoing special image of my younger daughter, Emily, is how she often recycles an inspired line from Irene Dunne’s "My Favorite Wife" (1940). The movie situation finds Dunne discovering that her husband (Cary Grant), who innocently thought she was lost at sea, has both remarried and gifted his new wife with Irene’s most special piece of jewelry. Dunne’s amusing response comically distorts a central word of dialogue, “I used to have one (a jewelry pin) zactly (sic) like it... Z-A-C-T-L-Y.”
Emily now uses the term (with equal emphasis, “Z-A-C-T-L-Y”), whenever she needs a comic mantra to work through these instances when life seems to have shortchanged her.
The writing of my "Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood" (2003) biography, however, went beyond being a student of the movies – even Dunne movies. The real catalyst was a phone interview with the actress years before I had a book contract. Fresh out of graduate school, I was in Los Angeles doing research on a screwball comedy text – a genre in which Dunne excelled. My college mentor, film historian Richard Dyer MacCann, had made arrangements for me to call Dunne. By then, the mid-1970s, she had all but eschewed the traditional sit-down interview.

Debra Maylum

Still, on the phone she was funny, disarmingly honest and steadfastly protective of her favorite director – Leo McCarey, who megaphoned arguably her two greatest pictures, "The Awful Truth" (1937) and "Love Affair" (1939). While I would like to think my conversation skills kept her on the line 30 minutes, the real secret was confessing early that my dissertation had been on McCarey.
Dunne was at her comically candid best when she discussed the tendency of actresses, herself included, to feel one side of their faces photographed better. But unlike so many of her contemporaries, such as Jean Arthur and Claudette Colbert (who were adamant about only that side being shot), Dunne felt it would be presumptuous for her to make such a request.
Her favorite take on the subject, consistent with her longtime auteurist tendencies, involved director Alfred Hitchcock. She related how an actress, who will remain nameless, asked the master of suspense what her best side was. Hitchcock paused, and then said, “You’re sitting on it.”
Besides being a funny, well-told story (further enhanced by two endearing traits synonymous with Dunne’s screen persona – that throaty laugh, and a tendency to put pauses in unexpected places), one had to love her cheery, no-nonsense approach to both film and life. Here was that intrinsic “something” New York Times author Alan Schwarz credits as a mainspring for drawing one to a particular memorable life in American history – giving us what we need. And after that phone call, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would write her biography.

Irene Dunne Celebration

• 7 a.m. May 19: Special Mass Intention at Prince of Peace Catholic Church, 413 E. Second Street, to be conducted by Father John Meyer.

• 2 p.m., May 19: Randy Lakeman will show his memorabilia and give a presentation at the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum, 615 W. First St., Madison. Admission $2 but free to members. (812) 265-2335.

• 4 p.m. May 19: Indiana Historical Marker Ceremony at the Ohio Theatre, 105 E. Main St., Madison, Ind. Free. Includes memorabilia display at the theatre.

All good biographies have a “hook” – a unique slant that hopefully draws the reader to a text. What was my Dunne hook? She was the most versatile performer during Hollywood’s heyday, a claim made by no less an actor than Jimmy Stewart on the occasion of Dunne’s receiving her Kennedy Center Award (televised Dec. 27, 1985).
The case for Dunne’s diversity was based in the fact that her five Best Actress Oscar nominations occurred in almost as many different genres: the Western "Cimarron" (1931), two screwball comedies: "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936) and "The Awful Truth" (1937), the romantic comedy "Love Affair" (1939), and the populist "I Remember Mama" (1948). And this says nothing of her critical and commercial success as a singing star of such classic musicals as "Roberta" (1935, top billed over Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), "Show Boat" (1936), and the neglected "High, Wide, and Handsome" (1937). Moreover, Dunne’s early film career was fueled by excellent notices and huge box office returns in the genre of melodrama, especially "Back Street" (1932) and "Magnificent Obsession" (1935).

Indiana Historical Bureau
Indiana Historical Marker Database

ID#: 39.2006.1
County: Jefferson
Title: Irene Dunne
Marker Text:
Side 1:
Born in Louisville, Kentucky 1898; after father's death, moved with family to Madison. Graduated from Madison High School 1916. After voice training in Indianapolis and Chicago, began singing professionally. Won lead in road show of Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Boat 1929. Began Hollywood career 1930; in 42 films; nominated for five Academy. Awards.
Side 2:
Dunne maintained ties with Madison, which has honored her; she helped with restoration of Broadway Fountain 1976. She received Laetare Medal from University of Notre Dame 1949. President Dwight Eisenhower named her an alternate delegate to United Nations General Assembly 1957; was Kennedy Center Honors Awardee 1985. Died 1990 in Los Angeles.
Credit Line: Installed 2006 Indiana Historical Bureau and Friends of Irene Dunne
Directions: 105 E. Main Street, Madison (Installation May 19, 2006)

Why did Dunne never win an Academy Award? Cary Grant, who called Dunne one of his favorite leading ladies, had this take on the Oscar omission: “She should have won, you know. And she would have, too... but she was so good – her timing was so marvelous – that she made comedy look easy. If she’d made it look as difficult as it really is, she’d have won.”
Regardless, for film fans of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Dunne is one of the pantheon players. And Madison, Ind., is to be commended for acknowledging this legacy. Dunne was truly an American original.

• Wes Gehring is a film historian and author of one of the few biographies of the late film actress Irene Dunne, is a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He wrote this column for the RoundAbout.

Back to May 2006 Articles.



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