Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood
American original was honored
Editor's Note: This is the final installment of stories
previewing the May 19 Indiana Historical Marker
dedication ceremony for the late film actress,
Irene Dunne, who spent much of her youth living in
Madison, where she graduated high school. To
read our past coverage, visit the April story archives
of our website: www.RoundAboutMadison.com.
Witing screen biographies is greatly assisted by the fact
that I am not unlike the central character in Walter Percys classic
1961 novel, "The Moviegoer." Who and what I am is forever
connected with film. My favorite pieces of time are not just memories;
they are movie memories.
For example, an ongoing special image of my younger daughter,
Emily, is how she often recycles an inspired line from Irene Dunnes
"My Favorite Wife" (1940). The movie situation finds Dunne
discovering that her husband (Cary Grant), who innocently thought she
was lost at sea, has both remarried and gifted his new wife with Irenes
most special piece of jewelry. Dunnes amusing response comically
distorts a central word of dialogue, I used to have one (a jewelry
pin) zactly (sic) like it... Z-A-C-T-L-Y.
Emily now uses the term (with equal emphasis, Z-A-C-T-L-Y),
whenever she needs a comic mantra to work through these instances when
life seems to have shortchanged her.
The writing of my "Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood" (2003)
biography, however, went beyond being a student of the movies even
Dunne movies. The real catalyst was a phone interview with the actress
years before I had a book contract. Fresh out of graduate school, I
was in Los Angeles doing research on a screwball comedy text
a genre in which Dunne excelled. My college mentor, film historian Richard
Dyer MacCann, had made arrangements for me to call Dunne. By then, the
mid-1970s, she had all but eschewed the traditional sit-down interview.
Still, on the phone she was funny, disarmingly honest
and steadfastly protective of her favorite director Leo McCarey,
who megaphoned arguably her two greatest pictures, "The Awful Truth"
(1937) and "Love Affair" (1939). While I would like to think
my conversation skills kept her on the line 30 minutes, the real secret
was confessing early that my dissertation had been on McCarey.
Dunne was at her comically candid best when she discussed the tendency
of actresses, herself included, to feel one side of their faces photographed
better. But unlike so many of her contemporaries, such as Jean Arthur
and Claudette Colbert (who were adamant about only that side being shot),
Dunne felt it would be presumptuous for her to make such a request.
Her favorite take on the subject, consistent with her longtime auteurist
tendencies, involved director Alfred Hitchcock. She related how an actress,
who will remain nameless, asked the master of suspense what her best
side was. Hitchcock paused, and then said, Youre sitting
Besides being a funny, well-told story (further enhanced by two endearing
traits synonymous with Dunnes screen persona that throaty
laugh, and a tendency to put pauses in unexpected places), one had to
love her cheery, no-nonsense approach to both film and life. Here was
that intrinsic something New York Times author Alan Schwarz
credits as a mainspring for drawing one to a particular memorable life
in American history giving us what we need. And after that phone
call, I knew it was only a matter of time before I would write her biography.
7 a.m. May 19: Special Mass Intention at Prince of
Peace Catholic Church, 413 E. Second Street, to be conducted by
Father John Meyer.
2 p.m., May 19: Randy Lakeman will show his memorabilia
and give a presentation at the Jefferson County Historical Society
Museum, 615 W. First St., Madison. Admission $2 but free to members.
4 p.m. May 19: Indiana Historical Marker Ceremony
at the Ohio Theatre, 105 E. Main St., Madison, Ind. Free. Includes
memorabilia display at the theatre.
All good biographies have a hook a
unique slant that hopefully draws the reader to a text. What was my
Dunne hook? She was the most versatile performer during Hollywoods
heyday, a claim made by no less an actor than Jimmy Stewart on the occasion
of Dunnes receiving her Kennedy Center Award (televised Dec. 27,
The case for Dunnes diversity was based in the fact that her five
Best Actress Oscar nominations occurred in almost as many different
genres: the Western "Cimarron" (1931), two screwball comedies:
"Theodora Goes Wild" (1936) and "The Awful Truth"
(1937), the romantic comedy "Love Affair" (1939), and the
populist "I Remember Mama" (1948). And this says nothing of
her critical and commercial success as a singing star of such classic
musicals as "Roberta" (1935, top billed over Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers), "Show Boat" (1936), and the neglected
"High, Wide, and Handsome" (1937). Moreover, Dunnes
early film career was fueled by excellent notices and huge box office
returns in the genre of melodrama, especially "Back Street"
(1932) and "Magnificent Obsession" (1935).
Indiana Historical Marker Database
Title: Irene Dunne
Born in Louisville, Kentucky 1898; after father's death, moved
with family to Madison. Graduated from Madison High School 1916.
After voice training in Indianapolis and Chicago, began singing
professionally. Won lead in road show of Florenz Ziegfeld's
Show Boat 1929. Began Hollywood career 1930; in 42 films; nominated
for five Academy. Awards.
Dunne maintained ties with Madison, which has honored her; she
helped with restoration of Broadway Fountain 1976. She received
Laetare Medal from University of Notre Dame 1949. President
Dwight Eisenhower named her an alternate delegate to United
Nations General Assembly 1957; was Kennedy Center Honors Awardee
1985. Died 1990 in Los Angeles.
Credit Line: Installed 2006 Indiana Historical Bureau and Friends
of Irene Dunne
Directions: 105 E. Main Street, Madison (Installation May 19,
Why did Dunne never win an Academy Award? Cary Grant,
who called Dunne one of his favorite leading ladies, had this take on
the Oscar omission: She should have won, you know. And she would
have, too... but she was so good her timing was so marvelous
that she made comedy look easy. If shed made it look as
difficult as it really is, shed have won.
Regardless, for film fans of Hollywoods Golden Age, Dunne is one
of the pantheon players. And Madison, Ind., is to be commended for acknowledging
this legacy. Dunne was truly an American original.
Wes Gehring is a film historian and author
of one of the few biographies of the late film actress Irene Dunne,
is a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. He wrote this
column for the RoundAbout.
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