Tag Archives: irene dunne

Man Enough: Love Affair (1939)

3 Dec

First off: miss me, both of you? It’s been a wild month. I played a mamboing Thomas Edison in a two-person show I co-wrote/-produced, which curtailed my viewing and therefore my writing. Also, it’s knitting season, and modern false notions of multitasking be damned, watching a movie and “having a movie on” are distinctly different to me. Anyway, things are calmer now, so I’m hoping I have more time again. So, we begin.

love affair 6

What is it about Irene Dunne that makes me want to write this, apropos of nothing and having written semi-extensively (or at least exclusively) before?

I should first revel for a moment in my status as man enough to admit that I’m a Sap.

I love these things, these stories that used to be called “women’s pictures.” I always have, though I blame my wife publicly for my post-nuptial tendency for actual weeping at them. I’m not precisely sure how she’s to blame, but it’s too late now. I’ve blamed her.

At some point in childhood I said, semi-consciously, “I like these old ones. I should be checking the year when I look at TV listings,” and started doing so. Things like this, romantic melodramas, tended to be heavily represented in the limited space pre-cable network television had for its classics. It wasn’t The Dirty Dozen or The Three Musketeers, but it was on and it was old so I was watching it. And at some point I forgot that I’m supposed to have a gender-based aversion to gooey chick flicks. (Probably that one day I was home sick and totally sobbed at The Clock. I was probably feverish, though. Forget I told you that.)

To be clear, now: I retain my aversion to being nakedly and poorly manipulated, which happens slightly more in the romantic melodrama than in other genres –beyond categorization, you’ve still got “good” and “bad” to discern – and don’t even get me started on the modern propensity to have it so distilled to a scientific formula that a romance doesn’t even have to be fleshed out so long as ten or twelve clichéd pasteurized processed predigested chunks can be cobbled together in an entwined spit-dangle of lazy, sorry storytelling(, actually).

But to be manipulated just right, as in any good tale, is a delight, even when awful things keep happening to those poor, unsuspecting little pawns. And be it  Charlotte Brontë or Billy Wilder, six-hour BBC version or just Garson and Olivier, I’m on board, handkerchief at the ready, a total Sap.

boyer-dunne-love-affair_optLove Affair’s formula has been stolen and re-stolen enough times over the years that its powers should have dissipated. It was, of course, famously re-made by it’s writer/director Leo McCarey as An Affair to Remember (and only slightly-less famously remade in Bollywood – twice), which is referenced endlessly, particularly post-Sleepless in Seattle. The remake is preferred by many, I suspect because duh Cary Grant, and I get that, honestly, but…it suffers from a notable lack of Irene Dunne.

And she, to me, is why this works. Boyer does fine work, and is perfectly cast, but there’s this Thing about Dunne that makes it plausible that she (as Terry McKay) both aspires to sing in nightclubs and prays openly in Grandmother’s chapel. That’s not really a paradox if you know any actual human beings, but in stories like this, characters tend to get distilled, probably because we only see 80-100 minutes of their lives, so what we do see is presumably important.

boyer-dunne-love-affair2Dunne has a strange electricity, though, not cold but so able to be un-bawdy, even in the most raucous of screwballs, at moments when the bawdy isn’t the point, and then turn it back on when it’s time. That’s either more difficult to pull off than it seems or no one else tried. (For examples, watch her scenes with Boyer through the porthole window or in the doorway of her stateroom and contrast them with scenes in her apartment at the end or in the aforementioned chapel.)

dunneloveaffair2Or here’s a good example with an added sprinkling of cultural anthropology: Terry’s song in the nightclub. It’s worth noting that in 1939 jazz rhythms and  styles were not fully in control of popular music, which didn’t even merit a capital-P at that point. Jazz was huge, but it shared the world’s ears with “legit” voices, with classical and art songs, in a way that often generates confusion today when the majority of Pop vocal stylings are mushed together into a paste. It was perfectly reasonable for an adult (that’s maybe an important word here) artist to sing a popular song the way Dunne does here and not be seen as weirdly dry. The obvious analog is her own performance in Show Boat four years before. She’s not a blues belter, but Terry by god means it and puts it over.

(Interesting to note that the pursuits of Our Lovers during their six-month split are so completely impractical in modern terms but are so single-mindedly sought. “Well, obviously I have to learn to make some money – I’ll be an artist; that’ll turn me a buck.” Six month is scarcely time for a 21st Century Artist to get a grant application filled out.)


But I’ll close with what is to me the scene that proves my collapse into Saphood, if only to me – and it isn’t the Wow Finish with the embrace and the sofa and the painting and all. But it’s where the writing/directing/acting prove their mettle: where Our Lovers say goodbye to Grandmother (Maria Ouspenskaya), or Nanu, or whatever the hell he calls her.

I have difficulty imagining a modern actor, particularly American, performing this or a modern writer writing with this particular kind of incredibly non-melodramatic restraint. “Thank you for letting me trespass,” says Terry. Then, not at all rudely but in fact with a loving sort of decorum, she scoots down the stairs and out of the way to give them a private moment to say their familial goodbyes. She doesn’t seem to expect acknowledgment for this; it’s just what a person who’s been raised right does. THEN, only when she simply cannot resist the pull of this unexpected connection, up the stairs again to kiss Nanu silently.

And THAT is the scene that breaks me. Laugh it up at the Sap.

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…