Irene Dunne

Irene Dunne (born Irene Marie Dunn, December 20, 1898 – September 4, 1990) was an American film actress and singer of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s. Dunne was nominated five times for the Academy Award for Best Actress – for her performances in Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939), and I Remember Mama (1948). In 1985, Dunne was given the Kennedy Center Honors for her services to the arts.

Irene Dunne
Dunne, c. 1938
Irene Marie Dunn

(1898-12-20)December 20, 1898
DiedSeptember 4, 1990(1990-09-04) (aged 91)
Alma materChicago Musical College
  • actress
  • singer
  • philanthropist
Years active1922–1962
Francis Dennis Griffin
(m. 1927; died 1965)
Musical career
InstrumentsVocals (soprano)
LabelsDecca Records
WebsiteIrene Dunne Guild

Early life

Dunne was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph John Dunn (1863–1909), a steamboat engineer/inspector for the United States government,[1] and Adelaide Henry (1871–1936), a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky. Irene Dunne would later write, "No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivalled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the riverboats with my father." She was eleven[2] when her father died from a kidney infection;[3] she saved all of his letters and often remembered and lived by what he told her the night before he died: "Happiness is never an accident. It is the prize we get when we choose wisely from life's great stores."[2]

Following her father's death, Irene, her mother, and her younger brother Charles moved to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana.[4] Dunne's mother taught her to play the piano as a very small girl. According to Dunne, "Music was as natural as breathing in our house."[2] Dunne was raised as a devout Roman Catholic.[5] Nicknamed "Dunnie" by her school friends,[4] her first school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream sparked her interest in drama,[4] so she took singing lessons as well, and sang in local churches and high school plays before her graduation in 1916.[6]

Dunne earned a diploma to teach art, but took a chance on a contest and won a prestigious scholarship[7] to the Chicago Musical College, where she graduated in 1926.[8] With a soprano voice,[9] she had hopes of becoming an opera singer, but did not pass the audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company.[8]


Irene, after adding an "e" to her surname, turned to musical theater. She toured several provincial cities in 1921–22 playing the lead role in the popular play Irene,[10] before making her Broadway debut in 1922 in Zelda Sears's The Clinging Vine.[11] The following year, Dunne played a season of light opera in Atlanta, Georgia, though in her own words Dunne created "no great furor". On July 16, 1927, Dunne married Francis Griffin, a New York dentist,[12] whom she had met in 1924 at a supper dance in New York. Despite differing opinions and battles that raged furiously,[2] Dunne eventually agreed to marry him. Dunne later moved to Hollywood with her mother and brother and maintained a long-distance marriage with her husband in New York until he joined her in California in 1936.

By 1929, she had a successful Broadway career playing leading roles. Dunne's role as Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat was the result of a chance meeting with showman Florenz Ziegfeld in an elevator the day she returned from her honeymoon.[2] She was discovered by Hollywood when starring with the road company of Show Boat[13] in 1929. She signed a contract with RKO and appeared in her first movie, Leathernecking (1930), a film version of the musical Present Arms. Already in her 30s when she made her first film, she would be in competition with younger actresses for roles, and found it advantageous to evade questions that would reveal her age. Her publicists encouraged the belief that she was born in 1901 or 1904, and the former is the date engraved on her tombstone.[13]

During the 1930s and 1940s, Dunne blossomed into a popular screen heroine in movies such as the original Back Street (1932) and the original Magnificent Obsession (1935) and re-created her role as Magnolia in Show Boat (1936), directed by James Whale. Love Affair (1939) is the first of three films she made opposite Charles Boyer. She starred, and sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film version of the musical Roberta (1935).

Dunne was apprehensive about attempting her first comedy role as the title character in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), but discovered that she enjoyed it.[14] She received her second Best Actress Oscar nomination for the performance. She turned out to possess an aptitude for comedy, with a flair for combining the elegant and the madcap, a quality she displayed in such films as The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940), both co-starring Cary Grant. Other roles include Julie Gardiner Adams in Penny Serenade (1941), again with Grant, Anna and the King of Siam (1946) as Anna Leonowens, Lavinia Day in Life with Father (1947), and Marta Hanson in I Remember Mama (1948). In The Mudlark (1950), she was nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Queen Victoria.

The comedy It Grows on Trees (1952) became Dunne's last screen performance, although she remained on the lookout for suitable film scripts for years afterwards. The following year, she was the opening act on 1953's March of Dimes showcase in New York City. When in town, she made an appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line?[15] She also made television performances on Ford Theatre, General Electric Theater, and the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, continuing to act until 1962.

In 1952–53, Dunne played newspaper editor Susan Armstrong in the radio program Bright Star. The syndicated 30-minute comedy-drama also starred Fred MacMurray.[16]

Describing her anomalous career in 1980, James McCourt wrote "Irene Dunne seems more than, less than, or other than a movie star."[17] Dunne commented in an interview that she had lacked the "terrifying ambition" of some other actresses and said, "I drifted into acting and drifted out. Acting is not everything. Living is."[18][19]

Later life

Dunne was present at Disneyland on "Dedication Day" in 1955 and was asked by Walt Disney to christen the Mark Twain River Boat, which she did with a bottle filled with water from several major rivers across the United States.

In 1957, President Eisenhower appointed Dunne one of five alternative U.S. delegates to the United Nations in recognition of her interest in international affairs and Roman Catholic and Republican causes.[20] In her retirement, she devoted herself primarily to civic, philanthropic, and Republican political causes.[21] In 1965, she became a board member of Technicolor, the first woman ever elected to the board of directors.[22]

Personal life

Dunne remained married to Dr. Francis Griffin until his death on October 14, 1965. They lived in Holmby Hills, California, in a Southern plantation-style mansion they designed. They had one daughter, Mary Frances (née Anna Mary Bush), who was adopted in 1936 (finalized in 1938) from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity of New York. (b. 1936) adopted[23][24] Both she and her husband were members of the Knights of Malta.

Dunne was a devout Catholic who became a daily communicant. She was a member of the Church of the Good Shepherd and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.[25] She was good friends with actress Loretta Young and remained close to others like Jimmy Stewart.[26]

One of Dunne's 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 in Santa Monica, California, for which her foundation, The Irene Dunne Guild, had raised more than $20 million. The Irene Dunne Guild remains "instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services at St. John's" hospital in Santa Monica.[27]


Dunne died at her Holmby Hills home in Los Angeles on September 4, 1990,[28] and is entombed in the Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California.[29] She was survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.[30]

A bronze bust of Dunne is on display at St. John's Hospital. The artwork, commissioned by the hospital from artist Artis Lane, has a plaque reading "IRENE DUNNE First Lady Of Saint John's Hospital and Health Center Foundation."[31]


Dunne is considered one of the best actresses of The Golden Age of Hollywood never to win an Academy Award,[32][33] along with actresses such as Deborah Kerr, Myrna Loy, and Barbara Stanwyck.[34] Despite this, she is not as well-remembered as the other three. Jessica Pickens theorised on Netflix DVD's Blog, "She was in dramatic 'weepers,' musicals, and comedies. Perhaps this versatility could be why she goes overlooked—she wasn't pinned down to one role or stereotype."[35] Pickens also points out that "so many of her films were remade into large budget films in the 1950s after she ended her film career",[35] such as Anna and the King of Siam (remade as The King and I ten years later), Love Affair (remade as An Affair to Remember), Show Boat (remade in 1951) and Cimarron (remade in 1960).[35] Dunne's well-known films are notably The Awful Truth, My Favourite Wife, Penny Serenade and Roberta; the latter an Astaire/Rogers film ("more a vehicle for the dancing pair, than anything else"[35]) and the other three co-starring Cary Grant; all three actors ranked in AFI's 100 Years … 100 Stars (males: Grant, #2; Astaire, #5; Rogers, #14 female). The Awful Truth was voted the 68th best comedy of American cinema.

Although known for her comedic roles, Dunne admitted that she never saw comedy as a worthy genre, even leaving the country on a cruise to the London premiere of Show Boat[36] with her husband and James Whale to get away from being confronted with a script for Theodora Goes Wild.[37] "I never admired a comedienne," she said retrospectively, "yet it was very easy for me, very natural. It was no effort for me to do comedy at all. Maybe that's why I wasn't so appreciative of it."[38] She dedicated her sense of humor to her late father,[39] as well as her "Irish stubbornness".[3] Her screwball comedy characters have been praised for their subversions to the traditional characterisation of female leads in the genre, particularly Susan (Katharine Hepburn) in Bringing Up Baby and Irene (Carole Lombard) in My Man Godfrey. "Unlike the genre's stereotypical leading lady, who exhibits bonkers behaviour continuously," writes Wes D. Gehring, "Dunne's screwball heroine [in Theodora Goes Wild] chooses when she goes wild."[40] Biographers and critics argue that Dunne's groundedness made her screwball characters more attractive than her contemporaries; Maria DiBattista points out that Dunne is the "only comic actress working under the strictures of the Production Code" who ends both of her screwball movies alongside Cary Grant with a heavy implication of sharing a bed with him, "under the guise of keeping him at bay."[41] Meanwhile, outside of comedy, Andrew Sarris theorised that Dunne's sex appeal is due to the common narrative in her movies about a good girl "going bad".[42]

Dunne was popular with co-workers off-camera, earning a reputation as warm, approachable and having a "poised, gracious manner"[39] like royalty, which spilled into her persona in movies. She earned the nickname "The First Lady of Hollywood" because "she was the first real lady Hollywood has ever seen," said Leo McCarey,[43] with Gregory La Cava adding, "If Irene Dunne isn't the first lady of Hollywood, then she's the last one."[44] Ironically, this title had been bestowed on her when she was a little girl when an aunt cooed "What a little lady!"[39] This ladylike attitude furthered Sarris' sex appeal claims, admitting that the scene when she shares a carriage with Preston Foster on the train in Unfinished Business was practically his "rite of passage" to a sex scene in a film,[42] theorizing that the sex appeal of Dunne came from "a good girl deciding thoughtfully to be bad".[42] On the blatant eroticism of the same train scene, Megan McGurk wrote, "The only thing that allowed this film to pass the censors was that good-girl Irene Dunne can have a one-night stand with a random because she loves him, rather than just a once-off fling. For most other women of her star magnitude, you could not imagine a heroine without a moral compass trained on true north. Irene Dunne elevates a tawdry encounter to something justifiably pure or blameless. She's just not the casual sex type, so she gets away with it."[45]

Dunne later said, "Cary Grant always said that I had the best timing of anybody he ever worked with."[38] Lucille Ball admitted at an American Film Institute seminar that she based her comedic skills on Dunne's performance in Joy of Living.[46] Charles Boyer described her as "a gracious house",[47] adding, "...the best room would be the music room [...] Great music, and the best of good swing, and things by Gershwin would sound there always. The acoustics would be perfect. Guests in this house would be relaxed and happy but they would have to mind their manners."[48]

Awards and nominations

Dunne received five Best Actress nominations during her career: for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948). When asked if she ever resented never winning, Dunne pointed out that the nominees she was up against had strong support, believing that she would never have had a chance, especially when Love Affair was against Gone with the Wind.[49]

She was named to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1958.[50] Other honors include the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame in 1949, the Bellarmine Medal from Bellarmine College in 1965 and Colorado's Women of Achievement in 1968. In 1985 she was honored by the Kennedy Center,[51] which was presented by her friend Jimmy Stewart. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6440 Hollywood Blvd. and displays in the Warner Bros. Museum and Center for Motion Picture Study.[52]


Year Title Role Notes
1930 Leathernecking Delphine Witherspoon
1931 Cimarron Sabra Cravat Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
The Stolen Jools Herself Film produced for charity by the Masquers Club
Bachelor Apartment Helene Andrews
The Great Lover Diana Page
Consolation Marriage Mary Brown Porter
1932 Symphony of Six Million Jessica
Back Street Ray Smith
Thirteen Women Laura Stanhope
1933 No Other Woman Anna Stanley
The Secret of Madame Blanche Sally Sanders St. John
The Silver Cord Christina Phelps
Ann Vickers Ann Vickers
If I Were Free Sarah Cazenove
1934 This Man Is Mine Tony Dunlap
Stingaree Hilda Bouverie
The Age of Innocence Countess Ellen Olenska
Sweet Adeline Adeline "Addie" Schmidt
1935 Roberta Stephanie
Magnificent Obsession Helen Hudson
1936 Show Boat Magnolia Hawks
Theodora Goes Wild Theodora Lynn/Caroline Adams Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1937 High, Wide, and Handsome Sally Watterson
The Awful Truth Lucy Warriner Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1938 Joy of Living Margaret "Maggie" Garret
1939 Love Affair Terry Mckay Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
Invitation to Happiness Eleanor Wayne
When Tomorrow Comes Helen Lawrence
1940 My Favorite Wife Ellen Arden
1941 Penny Serenade Julie Gardiner Adams
Unfinished Business Nancy Andrews
1942 Lady in a Jam Jane Palmer
1943 Show Business at War Herself
A Guy Named Joe Dorinda Durston
1944 The White Cliffs of Dover Susan Dunn
Together Again Anne Crandall
1945 Over 21 Paula "Polly" Wharton
1946 Anna and the King of Siam Anna Owens
1947 Life with Father Vinnie Day
1948 I Remember Mama Martha "Mama" Hanson Nominated—Academy Award for Best Actress
1950 Never a Dull Moment Kay Kingsley Heyward
The Mudlark Queen Victoria
1951 You Can Change the World Herself Produced by The Christophers
1952 It Grows on Trees Polly Baxter

Television credits

Radio appearances

1935Lux Radio TheaterSecrets
1936Lux Radio TheaterBittersweet
1938Lux Radio TheaterTheodora Goes Wild
1939Lux Radio TheaterThe Sisters
1940Lux Radio TheaterLove Affair
1940Lux Radio TheaterShow Boat
1941The Screen Guild TheaterMy Favorite Wife
1941Lux Radio TheaterUnfinished Business
1941The Screen Guild TheaterPenny Serenade
1941The Cavalcade Of AmericaCimmarron
1946Lux Radio TheatreTogether Again[53]
1952Family TheaterThe Crossroads of Christmas[54]

Selected discography

1941"I've Told Ev'ry Little Star"with the Victor Young OrchestraReleased twice on 10-in[55]
1941"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes"with the Victor Young Orchestra
  • Released twice on 10-in with "I've Told You Ev'ry Little Star
  • Released in the UK on two LPs
1941"All the Things You Are"with the Victor Young Orchestra
  • Originally rejected
  • Released twics on a 10-in with "Why Was I Born?"
1941"The Folks who Live on the Hill"Unissued[58]
1941"Why Was I Born?"Released twice on a 10-in with "All the Things You Are"[59]
1941"Make Believe"Unissued[60]
1941"Babes in the Wood"Released twice on a 10-in with "They Didn't Believe Me"[61][62]
1941"They Didn't Believe Me"with the Victor Young OrchestraReleased twice on a 10-in with "Babes in the Wood"[63]

According to Francis Ford Coppola's audio commentary on Bram Stoker's Dracula, Columbia used Dunne's image on the familiar logo. In Mad Men the character of Peggy Olson is compared to Irene.

See also


  1. Gehring 2003, p. 7.
  2. Hats, Hunches & Happiness by Irene Dunne; 1945.
  3. Gehring 2003, p. 8.
  4. Gehring 2003, p. 11.
  5. Stafford, Jeff. "Thirteen Women". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 2010-08-12. Irene Dunne, a devout Catholic,...
  6. Gehring 2003, p. 13.
  7. Gehring 2003, p. 14.
  8. Gehring 2003, p. 15.
  9. "Musical Recital: A Pronounced Success". Archived from the original on 2013-12-09. Retrieved 2013-12-09.
  10. Logansport Pharos-Tribune, March 18, 1922
  11. The Clinging Vine, Internet Broadway Database
  12. The Indianapolis Star, July 31, 1927, p 57
  13. The Irene Dunne Site: The Pre-Hollywood Years – 1898–1929 Archived 2013-12-05 at Retrieved August 18, 2015.
  14. Robert Osborne, Turner Classic Movies introduction to the film.
  15. What's My Line? (6 October 2013). "What's My Line? - Irene Dunne (Feb 1, 1953)" via YouTube.
  16. Dunning, John (1998). On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio (Revised ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 119–120. ISBN 978-0-19-507678-3. Retrieved 2019-08-31.
  17. Basinger, Jeanine (2007). "Disentanglement: Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer". The Star Machine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Vintage Books. p. 355. ISBN 978-0307388759.
  18. Shipman, David (3 November 1988). Movie Talk. Bloomsbury; St Martin's Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0747501817.
  19. Dunne, Irene (10 September 1977). "A Visit with Irene Dunne". American Classic Screen (Interview). Interviewed by James Bawden: 11.
  20. "Ike Appoints Irene Dunne to U.N. Post" (August 10, 1957). Palm Beach Post, p. 4.
  21. Gehring 2003, p. 168-170.
  22. Gehring 2003, p. 176.
  23. "Good Night, Irene Dunne; Hollywood Loses An Airy and Elegant Gal from Film's Golden Age". People. September 17, 1990. Retrieved May 8, 2016.
  24. "Irene Dunne Adopts Baby: Actress Formally Becomes Foster-Mother of Girl, 4", The New York Times, 17 March 1938, p. 17
  25. "Our History - Church of the Good Shepherd". Church of the Good Shepherd.
  26. a painting of James Stewart and Irene Dunne together is displayed in the James Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA:
  27. See
  28. "Irene Dunne, Leading Star of '30s and '40s, Dies at 88". Los Angeles Times. September 5, 1990. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  29. "USC Cinematic Arts Library's Archives of Performing Arts: Collections List". USC Libraries Research Guides. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  30. Flint, Peter B. (September 6, 1990). "Irene Dunne, a Versatile Actress Of the 1930's and 40's, Dies at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved May 9, 2016.
  31. "Irene Dunne (sculpture)". SIRIS. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
  32. Michael, Milton (2008-01-22). "Neil Postman, Irene Dunne and Living". Retrieved 21 August 2010.
  33. "ACADEMY AWARDS Snubbed by Oscar: Mistakes & Omissions". Retrieved 18 March 2019.
  34. "The 50 Greatest Actresses Who Have Never Won an Oscar". IMDb. 2 October 2010. Retrieved 18 March 2019.
  35. Pickens, Jessica. "Don't Overlook Her: Classic Film Star Irene Dunne". Netflix DVD.
  36. Gehring 2003, p. 69.
  37. McDonough, 1985.
  38. James Harvey, 1978.
  39. Gehring 2003, p. 9.
  40. Gehring 2003, p. 71.
  41. Fast-Talking Dames.
  42. Sarris, Andrew (17 September 1990). "Irene Dunne orbituary". New York Observer.
  43. McCarey, Leo (1964). "Irene Dunne". McCalls (Interview). Interviewed by Stephen Birmingham. p. 100.
  44. La Cava, Gregory (8 May 1985). Untitled Irene Dunne dedication (Speech). Irene Dunne dedication at St. John's Hospital. St. John's Hospital, California: Hollywood Reporter.
  45. McGurk, Megan (2 June 2017). "Irene Dunne's Unfinished Business". Retrieved 19 March 2019.
  46. Gehring 2003, p. 185.
  47. Gehring 2003, p. 104.
  48. Boyer, Charles (1939). "IRENE as Seen by Charles Boyer". Photoplay (Interview). p. 24.
  49. Shaden radio, 1971.
  50. Vanity Fair Archived 2013-07-12 at the Wayback Machine
  51. "Kennedy Center Honors Irene Dunne (1985)". YouTube. Retrieved 17 March 2019.
  52. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Margaret Herrick Library, 2000, Gifts of Vanna Bonta
  53. "'Together Again' With Irene Dunn [sic] Next 'Lux' Drama". Harrisburg Telegraph. December 7, 1946. p. 19. Retrieved September 12, 2015 via
  54. Kirby, Walter (December 21, 1952). "Better Radio Programs for the Week". The Decatur Daily Review. p. 44. Retrieved June 8, 2015 via
  55. "Decca matrix DLA 2552. I've told ev'ry little star / Irene Dunne". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  56. "Decca matrix DLA 2553. Smoke gets in your eyes / Irene Dunne". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  57. "Decca matrix DLA 2554. All the things you are / Irene Dunne". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  58. "Decca matrix DLA 2604. The folks who live on the hill / Irene Dunne". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  59. "Decca 40017 (10-in. double-faced). (Album A-484". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  60. "Decca matrix DLA 2606. Make believe / Irene Dunne". Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  61. "Decca 18203 (10-in. double-faced). (Album A-294)". Discography of American Historical Recordings, S.v. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
  62. Decca matrix DLA 2626. Babes in the wood / Irene Dunne. (2019). In Discography of American Historical Recordings. Retrieved April 24, 2019, from
  63. Discography of American Historical Recordings, s.v. "Decca matrix DLA 2679. They didn't believe me / Irene Dunne," accessed April 24, 2019,

Further reading




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