She brought grace, beauty and vivacity to several of the finest romantic comedies of Hollywood's Golden Age and combined great dramatic depth with excellent comic timing and a natural flair for the ridiculous. Her persona was that of a modern independent lady, with wit, ambition and imagination.
BiographyIrene Dunne was born on December 20, 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky with the birth name Irene Marie Dunn (with no letter "e").
Early YearsHer mother was a music teacher and gave Irene piano lessons at an early age, and encouraged her to study singing and speech and drama. Her father, a steamboat inspector, died in 1909 when Irene was eleven, and she and her mother and brother moved to Madison, Indiana, to live at the house of her mother's parents. Irene developed her natural musical ability by taking piano and singing lessons and earned money singing in the Christ Episcopal Church choir.
She graduated from Madison High School in 1916 and spent two years at the Indianapolis Conservatory of Music, graduating with a teachers diploma. After a year of further study at the Chicago Music College Irene decided on a career as an opera singer and auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera Company but was rejected as being too young. She did however come to the attention of touring theater companies and after spending time auditioning and continuing her studies, Irene, in 1921 became a professional stage singer. It was at this time that she added a letter "e" to her last name.
Professional SingerShe made her Broadway debut in 1922 in the role of "Tessie" in 'The Clinging Vine' and she also acted as understudy to the star, Peggy Wood. In 1923 she played a full season of light opera in Atlanta, Georgia and the following year she went on tour in 'The Clinging Vine', but this time in the starring role. She continued successfully in her stage career, playing mainly leading lady roles.
In 1929 She was cast as Magnolia by Florenz Ziegfeld in the Chicago production of Kern and Hammerstein's long-running Broadway success, 'Show Boat'. It was an important move for Irene. She was immensely successful in the role and was talent-spotted by Hollywood scouts and offered a contract with RKO. She was on her way to Hollywood.
Movie ActressIrene's first movie was 'Leathernecking' in 1930, a film version of the 1928 Broadway musical comedy, 'Present Arms', but neither she nor the movie made much impression. The following year she appeared in 'Cimarron' which at the time was the most expensive film produced by RKO and for which she received the first of her five Best Actress nominations.
She began to specialise in "women's movies" - emotional tearjerkers - and appeared in several classics of the genre : 'Back Street' in 1932, 'No Other Woman' and 'Ann Vickers' the following year and 'Magnificent Obsession' in 1935.
She was also given her chance in musicals, where she had made her Broadway reputation, and appeared with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the film version of 'Roberta' in 1935. The following year she appeared in the earlier, and, to most observers, the classic film version of 'Show Boat', directed by James Whale, in which she re-created her role as Magnolia.
Comedy StarIrene, to her own surprise, possessed a real aptitude for comedy roles, and she gained her second Academy Award nomination for her sparkling performance as the title character in 'Theodora Goes Wild' in 1936. In 1937, she was teamed with screwball movie specialist, Cary Grant, in 'The Awful Truth' for which she gained a third Academy Award nomination. She again starred with Grant and again showed her great comedic skills, in 'My Favorite Wife' in 1940. Her own favorite of all her her films was 'Love Affair' in 1939 with Charles Boyer, which was a major hit and for which she was again nominated for an Academy Award for best Actress.
Other notable movies in her distinguished career include 'Penny Serenade' in 1940, 'Anna and the King of Siam' in 1946, the wonderful comedy 'Life With Father' the following year and 'I Remember Mama' in 1948 for which she gained her fifth and last Oscar nomination.
Irene gave a moving portrayal of Queen Victoria in 'The Mudlark' in 1950 and after the 1952 comedy 'It Grows on Trees' she retired from movies. However she did continue to act on television for the next ten years appearing on such programmes as 'What's My Line?', 'The Colgate Comedy Hour', 'Ford Theatre', and 'The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars'.
PersonalAfter retiring from acting Irene appeared less and less in public but devoted more of her time and considerable energy to charities and political causes. In particular she was named as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations after she had actively campaigned for President Eisenhower in the 1952 and 1956 elections. In 1965, she became a board member of Technicolor, the first woman ever elected to its board. She was also active in Roman Catholic charities, often with her good friend, the equally devout Loretta Young.
Irene married in 1928 Francis Griffin, a New York dentist, and they lived happily together in Holmby Hills, California until his death in 1965. They adopted a daughter Mary Frances in 1938.
Irene Dunne died on September 4, 1990, of heart failure, in Los Angeles, aged 91 years. She was buried at the Calvary Cemetery, Los Angeles.
Irene Dunne Academy AwardsNo Wins:
Five Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Cimarron (1931).
Best Actress ... Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Best Actress ... The Awful Truth (1937)
Best Actress ... Love Affair (1939)
Best Actress ... I Remember Mama (1948)
Irene Dunne Filmography
The Slippery Pearls
The Great Lover
Symphony of Six Million
No Other Woman
The Secret of Madame Blanche
The Silver Cord
Behold We Live
This Man Is Mine
The Age of Innocence
Theodora Goes Wild
High, Wide, and Handsome
The Awful Truth
Joy of Living
Invitation to Happiness
When Tomorrow Comes