Irene Dunne

29 Jun

(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.

tumblr_m98q7fS9ct1r4z5vfo1_400It 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…

22 Responses to “Irene Dunne”

  1. Movies, Silently June 30, 2013 at 1:30 am #

    Hi there! Thanks so much for contributing!

    I have a confession: The “Gone with the Wind” scene in The Awful Truth is just about the funniest thing I have ever seen.

    Thank you so much for highlighting Miss Dunne’s versatility and talent. She was truly a great one!

    • baldmanwithacowlick June 30, 2013 at 2:41 am #

      Thanks for having me!

      We just rewatched The Awful Truth the other day after it was on TCM. Not a displeasing moment.

      I wish she was more celebrated in her hometown (which is also mine).

  2. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman) June 30, 2013 at 2:00 am #

    I really feel that Irene Dunne “found herself” when she let lose in “Theodora Goes Wild”. She’s a keeper.

    • baldmanwithacowlick June 30, 2013 at 2:36 am #

      It IS a far cry from Showboat & Roberta, isn’t it. But for some reason, the writing in Theodora is (to me) more…I don’t know if “plausible” is the right word in a screwball, but no one is forced to do something dumb in the name of The Wacky. The rules of farce are obeyed so well in that one, and that shows Dunne to such good effect.

  3. TheBestofAlexandra June 30, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    I will definitely have to check out more of these movies since I think I’ve only really seen her in maudlin ’30s affairs, but I do see where you’re coming from on the “elegantly bizarre” front. Very well-put-together piece! You’ve totally sold me on her!

    • baldmanwithacowlick June 30, 2013 at 2:43 am #

      Thanks! I’m glad I could make her intriguing… Theodora Goes Wild is a terrific place to start. Such an impressive cast.

  4. Aurora June 30, 2013 at 11:35 pm #

    The Awful Truth is my absolute favorite screwball comedy. Even after having seen it more times than I can count, the nightclub scene when Dixie Bell does the wind number – Irene and Cary’s faces…PRICELESS! I love Irene Dunne!

    Great post and subject.


    • baldmanwithacowlick June 30, 2013 at 11:49 pm #

      Thanks! I’m also incurably fond of Dunne’s version later in the film. Funny – Dixie (Joyce Compton) seems to be haunting me lately. I’ve inadvertently seen her in about five movies in the last couple of weeks… she’s also from Kentucky – Lexington, only a few miles from where Dunne was born, Weird, no?

      • Aurora July 1, 2013 at 12:18 am #

        Weird, YES!

        I love Irene’s version too. But what kills me during Dixie’s number is the exchange between Irene and Cary. Just wonderful. I literally cry when I see that – each and every time.


  5. Le July 3, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    I really enjoy Irene in The Awful Truth, especially in the dance contest and when she and Cary are in court to see who will get the dog! I liked a lot what you said that she had the only chin that could compete with Cary’s!
    Don’t forget to reaed my contribution to the blogatthon! 🙂

  6. Judy July 3, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    Must agree that Dunne is great in both ‘The Awful Truth’ and ‘Theodora Goes Wild’ – I haven’t yet seen ‘My Favorite Wife’ but hope to do so soon! I do also love her singing in ‘Roberta’, and like your point about her bringing comic verve even to her more serious roles. A great contribution to the blogathon! .

    • baldmanwithacowlick July 3, 2013 at 8:34 pm #

      Thanks! “My Favorite Wife” doesn’t date quite as well as “The Awful Truth.”
      But it’s still a pleasure.

  7. george franklin July 6, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Check out Joan Leslie sometime. I see her at the Univ. Of Louisville Southern California Derby parties each year. She married a U of L doctor and quit acting in 1950. Say hello to Mom. I’m two years older and went to PRP.

    • baldmanwithacowlick July 7, 2013 at 3:01 am #

      I had no idea she lived in Louisville! Thanks for the tip. And I’ll be sure to tell her hi (Mom, not Joan Leslie. I don’t think she’ll answer my calls.)

    • baldmanwithacowlick July 7, 2013 at 3:03 am #

      Wait – I just reread that. Southern California Derby parties clearly take place in Southern California. Still. The connection is intriguing and I knew nothing of it.

  8. Lisa Brooks December 9, 2016 at 4:52 pm #

    Irene Dunne was indeed born in Louisville, as was I. She spent the first half of her childhood here before moving a short distance up the Ohio River to Madison, Indiana with her mother and brother after her father’s death. There is a Kentucky state historical marker in her honor on Fourth Street just across from the Brown Hotel but sadly the site of her childhood home at 507 East Gray Street is now a parking lot. However, her second childhood home still stands in Madison and there is a plaque affixed next to the front door proclaiming it as such. The people of Madison also arranged for an Indiana state historical marker to be erected in her honor in front of the Ohio Theater on Main Street.

    • yellowstockingtales December 9, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

      Proud Louisvillians unite! I pass that 4th St. marker about once a week.


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