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Biography

Irene Dunne’s career
was a true success story

By Don Ward
Editor

(March 2006) – Hollywood actress Irene Dunne, known as the “First Lady of Hollywood,” had 22-year film career spanning the 1930s-40s, starring in more than 40 movies. She was nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Actress but never won.

Irene Dunne

Courtesy of Jefferson Co. Historical Society Museum Archives

Irene Dunne was among the highest-paid stars during her Hollywood heydey.

Born “Irene Mary Dunn” on Dec. 20, 1898, in Louisville, Ky., to Joseph John and Adelaide Antoinette Henry Dunn, she lived for a short time in St. Louis, where her father, a Louisville native, worked for the federal government as a steamboat inspector. Her mother, a Madison native, was an accomplished pianist.
At age 11, her father unexpectedly died of a kidney disorder in late 1909. Dunne, her younger brother, Charles, and their mother moved back to Adelaide’s hometown of Madison in 1911 to live next door to Adelaide’s parents. They resided at 916 W. Second St. in a house that still stands today.
Irene, nicknamed “Dunnie,” took voice and piano lessons, sang at local churches and was active in middle and high school plays before graduating in 1916 from Madison High School.
In her senior high school yearbook, Dunne lists her activities as “Girls Chorus, Class Play Committee and Senior Commissioner.” Beside her nickname “Dunnie,” it reads, “Divinely tall and most divinely fair.” Her “byword” is listed as: “Oh that’s swell.” Her aspirations: “Dramatics.”
Upon graduation, she earned a scholarship to perfect her singing at the (now defunct) Oliver Willard Pierce Academy of Fine Arts in Indianapolis. After one year, she left for St. Louis, where she earned a teaching certificate from Webster College. She landed a teaching job in Gary, Ind., in 1918 but instead accepted a scholarship to study at the Chicago Musical College. In 1920, she moved to New York City in pursuit of a Broadway musical stage career. (She added the “e” to her last name as a young adult.) She auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Co. but was turned down. Instead, she landed a job with a traveling theater company.

Irene Dunne Home

Photo courtesy of Margie Schultz

Holmby Hills mansion in an exclusive section of Beverly Hills, Calif. Dunne and her husband, Dr. Francis Griffin, had this home built in 1936. Today, the mansion has been razed to make room for a larger, more contemporary Hollywood style home.

She returned to New York in 1922 and earned a small role in a Broadway musical. Then in 1928, after a lucky break, she was “discovered” and landed the lead role in the Broadway show, “Irene.” That same year, at age 29 she married a New York-based dentist, Dr. Francis D. Griffin, 42, whom she had met four years earlier at a party at the Biltmore Hotel. The two remained together until his death in 1965.
Dunne also played “Magnolia Hawks” in the Broadway stage hit “Show Boat” while in New York. That role got her noticed by RKO studio executives, so in 1929, she left New York and moved to Hollywood. She was cast in her first film, “Leathernecking,” in 1930, but her first big break came the next year as the leading lady in “Cimarron,” co-starring with Richard Dix. That film earned her the first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress.
By 1934, Dunne was an established star, cranking out three to four films a year. Besides Dix, some of her co-stars included Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Van Johnson, Rex Harrison and Fred MacMurray.

Irene Dunne filmography
Year: Film, Role, Co-Star, Genre

1930: Leathernecking, Delphine Witherspoon, Ken Murray, Musical/Comedy
1931: The Slippery Pearls, Herself, Various Hollywood Stars, Comedy
1931: The Great Lover, Diana Page, Adolphe Menjou, Drama,
1931: Consolation Marriage, Mary Brown, Pat O’Brien, Myrna Loy, Drama
**1931: Cimarron, Sabra Cravat, Richard Dix, Western
1931: Bachelor Apartment, Helene Andrews, Lowell Sherman, Comedy
1932: Symphony of Six Million, Jessica, Ricardo Cortez, Drama
1932: Thirteen Women, Laura Stanhope, Ricardo Cortez, Myrna Loy, Drama
1932: Back Street, Ray Schmidt, John Boles, Zasu Pitts, Drama
1933: The Silver Cord, Christina Phelps, Joel McCrea, Drama
1933: Secret of Madame Blanche, Sally St John, Lionel Atwill, Drama
1933: No Other Woman, Anna Stanley, Charles Bickford, Drama
1933: If I Were Free, Sarah Cazenove, Clive Brook, Drama
1933: Ann Vickers, Ann Vickers, Walter Huston, Drama
1934: This Man Is Mine, Toni Dunlap, Ralph Bellamy, Drama
1934: Sweet Adeline, Adeline Schmidt, Donald Woods, Musical
1934: The Age of Innocence, Countess Ellen Olenska, John Boles, Drama
1934: Stingaree, Hilda Bouverie, Richard Dix, Comedy
1935: Roberta, Stephanie, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Comedy/Musical
1935: Magnificent Obsession, Helen Hudson, Robert Taylor, Drama
**1936: Theodora Goes Wild, Theodora Lynn, Melvyn Douglas, Comedy
1936: Show Boat, Magnolia Hawkes Ravenal, Allan Jones, Musical
1937: High Wide and Handsome, Sally Walterson, Randolph Scott, Musical/Western
**1937: The Awful Truth, Lucy Warriner, Cary Grant, Comedy
1938: Joy of Living, Maggie Garret, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Comedy/Musical
**1939: Love Affair, Terry McKay, Charles Boyer, Comedy/Drama
1939: Invitation to Happiness, Eleanor Wayne, Fred MacMurray, Drama
1939: When Tomorrow Comes, Helen, Charles Boyer, Drama
1940: My Favourite Wife, Ellen Arden, Cary Grant, Comedy
1941: Penny Serenade, Julie Gardiner Adams, Cary Grant, Drama
1941: Unfinished Business, Nancy Andrews, Robert Montgomery, Comedy
1942: Lady in a Jam, Jane Palmer, Ralph Bellamy, Comedy
1943: Show Business at War, Herself, Various, Documentary
1943: A Guy Named Joe, Dorinda Durston, Spencer Tracy, Drama
1944: White Cliffs of Dover, Susan Dunn Ashwood, Alan Marshal, Drama
1944: Together Again, Anne Crandall, Charles Boyer, Comedy
1945: Over 21, Paula Wharton, Alexander Knox, Comedy
1946: Anna and The King of Siam, Anna Leonowens, Rex Harrison, Drama
1947: Life With Father, Vinnie Day, William Powell, Liz Taylor, Comedy
**1949: I Remember Mama, Mama Hansen, Barbara Bel Geddes, Drama
1950: Never A Dull Moment, Kay, Fred MacMurray, Comedy
1950: The Mudlark, Queen Victoria, Alec Guinness, Drama
1951: Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Host (TV Series), Various, Drama
1952: It Grows on Trees, Polly Baxter, Dean Jagger, Comedy

**=Nominated for Academy Award

She made movies of all genres, and was especially known for her comedic skills. Her versatility was illustrated in the fact she received Academy Award nominations in dramas, comedies and a Western. At the height of her career, Dunne and Kay Francis were reported to be the highest paid actresses in Hollywood in 1936, Francis earning $227,500 and Dunne earning $102,777 from Universal Pictures for one year’s work. By 1938, Dunne was reportedly being paid $150,000 per movie.
Dunne retired from acting in 1950 after making her final major film, “The Mudlark.” In the 1950s, she made only occasional TV appearances. A devout Roman Catholic and devoted Republican, she became active in philanthropy for her church, the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of America and St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. In the late 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her as an alternate delegate to the United Nations.
Dunne managed a long-distance marriage to Griffin during her early movie career, but when he finally gave up his practice and moved to Hollywood, in 1936 they adopted a 4-year-old girl, Mary Frances Griffin, who they nicknamed “Missy,” from the New York Founding Hospital. The couple also moved into a new $30,000 home they had built in Holmby Hills, an exclusive section of Beverly Hills. (It sold for a reported $6.9 million a few years after she died, and it was later demolished to make way for a more contemporary Hollywood-style mansion.)
But tragedy also struck that same year when in December Dunne lost her mother, Adelaide, who died of a second cerebral hemorrhage at age 65.
Dunne later had two grandchildren by Mary Frances and her first husband, Richard Shinnick. The grandchildren spent much of their childhoods living with Dunne. She attended parties and entertained with her personal circle of friends that included Loretta Young, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, and Bob and Delores Hope. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6440 Hollywood Blvd.
In 1940, Dunne traveled to Louisville to attend a special premiere of her film, “My Favorite Year,” prior to its official debut at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
In 1949, Notre Dame University bestowed on her the Laetare Medal, calling her “an example of talented Christian womanhood.” Throughout her life, she received numerous other awards from the Catholic Church and its affiliates, including the Bellarmine Medal from Louisville’s Bellarmine College in 1965.
She also received numerous honorary degrees, including those from Chicago Musical College, her alma mater, Loyola University and Mt. St. Mary’s College.
After her husband died, Dunne continued to live a private life in her mansion in Holmby Hills, near Hollywood, but never remarried.
In the 1970s, Dunne was appointed to serve on the board of Technicolor.
One of her last public appearances was in April 1985, when she attended the dedication of a bust in her honor at St. John’s (Roman Catholic) Hospital, for which her foundation had raised more than $20 million.
In December 1985, at age 86, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the American Medal of Freedom for her achievements in the arts at the Kennedy Center Honors. Others receiving the honors that night included comedian Hope and singer Beverly Sills. Due to an illness, Dunne was unable to attend the ceremony but did attend an dinner at the State Department, where she was greeted by her good friend, then-President Ronald Reagan.
Dunne was ill for most of the last five years of her life and spent the last month of her life bedridden. She died at her home of a heart ailment on Sept. 4, 1990, at age 91. She is interred at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, and her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California.
Near the end of her life, she said she had only one regret: “I never really had time to enjoy my success,” she told a reporter. “My husband and I lived on opposite coasts and saw each other only as often as our schedules would permit, which wasn’t much. We were together a few years at the end, but it wasn’t enough. Not enough at all.”
After her death, President Reagan spoke for Dunne fans everywhere when he said, “Losing her is like losing a member of the family. She’s a special lady who will live in our hearts forever.”

 

 

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