(This post is part of the Funny Lady Blogathon, generously hosted by Movies, Silently. Take a look at the other posts, won’t you?)
At rest, Irene Dunne’s doesn’t seem like a face for comedy… too sad-eyed, too refined. The speaking voice, giving little clue to the legitimate-style pipes, lands somewhere between Susan Sarandon and Gracie Allen and is prone to weird little half-chuckling interjections.
But she has the trick – she really doesn’t treat her comic and dramatic roles any differently. Even to her more melodramatic romances like Love Affair and Penny Serenade, she brings a surprising comic verve (which is how to make a proper tearjerker: one can hardly pull the rug from under an audience without inviting it in for a drink) .
What’s such a pleasure about watching Dunne at work in comedy is the sense that from role to role it’s tricky to know what to expect of her, and yet she still brings her Dunne-ness, that refined air (Louisville-born, but the elocution and voice lessons paid off, despite her Southern schtick in My Favorite Wife) with a hint of the sort of eccentricity that was once just called “vivacity” but was always dangerous.
My own particular soft spot is for her terrible acting in character: the aforementioned loudmouthed Southern Gal in My Favorite Wife, as well as her weird little impressions of Cary Grant’s as-yet-unmet-by-her new wife Gail Patrick*; the lovely layers of her amusement as she pretends to be her husband’s brash and half-tanked sister “Lola” (apparently never a name for classy broads) in The Awful Truth.
It seems only right that she did such high profile work with Cary Grant since she had the only chin that could compete with his. But she did fine work with all her partners. Her screwball set pieces were never cases of her running off on her own but always working in tandem. Her scenes with false-crisis-in-tweed Ralph Bellamy and his mother are as much fun as those with Grant in The Awful Truth. (And, ah, the dance contest. ) Even as straight man to her mooching family (including Lucille Ball and Alice Brady, who deserves her own post) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in Joy of Living. And I don’t even have room to dig into her fun turn with Charles Boyer in Together Again and the lighter edges of her prim governess in Anna and the King of Siam.
My particular favorite has always been Theodora Goes Wild. It lets people – all of them really, not just the leads – behave with the utter foolishness of the burgeoning Screwball style and yet there’s a depth to their reasoning that makes the two halves of the movie play out in such a satisfying way. And Dunne’s chemistry with Melvyn Douglas is splendid, though in fairness she’s got a lot of solid character folks to work with. This is such an ensemble story that were it not for the aforementioned chemistry, it would be easy for one of the supporting cast to run off with it all.
But the supporting cast does not and cannot. There’s no outstripping the elegantly bizarre Irene Dunne.
*Did Gail Patrick and Ralph Bellamy ever end up together in a movie? It would seem only fair considering how many times each of them was used as interference for The Real Couple…