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By Karen Costanzi

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Sometimes in life, things don’t go the way that we planned, and sometimes this is a good thing.  If Irene Dunne hadn’t failed her Met audition, the world would not have been blessed with her talent in Broadway musicals and Hollywood films.  The Metropolitan Opera Company’s loss was definitely our gain.

Born into a musical family in 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky, Irene Marie Dunne studied voice and piano throughout her youth. She made her “professional” debut at the age of five in a production of Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.  At age 19 she won a scholarship contest from the Chicago Music College.  After graduation, Ms. Dunne moved to New York, failed that fateful audition at the Met, but caught the attention of one of Broadway’s master builders, Florenz Ziegfeld.

1936 Irene Dunne R95 Linen Portrait 1936 Irene Dunne Carreras Film Stars Tobacco Card

Following her success as “Magnolia” in Showboat, Ms. Dunne landed a film contract with RKO Pictures.  Arriving in Hollywood in 1930 with her husband, Dr. Frances Griffin, she began her climb up the La-La-Land ladder.  However, her first film, Leathernecking, was not well received, due mostly to a decline of interest in musicals, as well as a problematic score.  After a few more comedies, Ms. Dunne campaigned for and won the dramatic role of “Sabra” in Cimarron.  Her Oscar nomination for that part proved that she was a serious dramatic actress and led to her being cast in such classics as Thirteen Women, Back Street, Ann Vickers, and The Age of Innocence. 

1936 M23 Irene Dunne Premium Photo1936 Facchino's Irene Dunne Tobacco CardShe continued to do musicals such as Sweet Adeline in 1934 and Roberta in 1935, even though she stated that she preferred more serious roles.  Her stereotyping role as a screwball author of a scandalous best-seller in Theodora Goes Wild gave her audience an exciting new side of her talent and gave her another Oscar nomination.  Theodora was released in 1939 and the field of nominees was formidable, with Vivien Leigh winning for her role as “Scarlet” in Gone With The Wind.  Many of her fans believe that Theodora was Ms. Dunne’s finest film and that she should have won the Academy Award.

Ms. Dunne found herself paired with one of Hollywood’s favorite rising stars, Cary Grant, in The Awful Truth (Oscar nomination) and My Favorite Wife (remade in 1964 into Move Over, Darling starring Doris Day and James Garner).  Later she starred in a film that would lead to two remakes, one of them a true classic.  Irene Dunne was the first Terri McKay in Love Affair in 1939.  However, her leading man was not Cary Grant, but Charles Boyer.  Mr. Grant had that role in the 1957 remake, An Affair to Remember.  In 1994, Annette Bening and Warren Beatty attempted to fill those roles, with small success, in another version of Love Affair.  Ms. Dunne received her fourth Oscar nomination for Love Affair.

Players Trading Card Irene DunneCary Grant reportedly said that Irene Dunne was his favorite leading lady because of her talent, inventiveness, and full-of-fun personality.  Those attributes and their camaraderie are evident in the delightful films in which these two excellent actors were paired.

Acutely aware of the hypocrisy and short memory of Hollywood and its audiences, Ms. Dunne wisely chose to leave the Hollywood limelight while her star was still shining brightly.  After her success in Love Affair, she appeared in about a dozen more films.  In 1948, she received rave reviews and her fifth Oscar nomination for her role in I Remember MamaIt Grows on Trees was her final film in 1952.  She appeared occasionally on television, but her public appearances turned away from entertainment and toward service and charity.  In 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed Ms. Dunne a special U.S. Delegate to the United Nations, and throughout her life she quietly championed several charitable organizations and civic causes.  In 1985, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Dunne claimed that “following her hunches” was a key element in her success, both professionally and personally.  In a Picturegoer article, she succinctly summed up her life and career.  “I have much to be thankful for and I am.  My hunches have been good to me.”  She died September 4, 1990, in Los Angeles, leaving a legacy of more than 40 films.
Karen Costanzi is a freelance writer, director, and performer living in Colorado.

Other Irene Dunne Pages:

Denny Jackson's Irene Dunne Page -- The First Lady of Hollywood!!!!