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Irene Dunne, the "First Lady of Hollywood," is arguably one of the finest actresses never to have won an Academy Award, not even an honorary one. She was a great comedienne, equally talented in dramas and musicals, and a hit with fans, however her work has often gone unrecognized. Her work is still viewed today. Whether people watch her musicals or her work while they're playing a bit of evening bingo or having long debates about the injustice of her never winning an Oscar, she remains in today's celebrated list of actors. Her work resonates down the years and influences the works of others, even now.
Irene Mary Dunn was born December 20, 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky, the daughter of steamboat inspector, Joseph John Dunn, and Adelaide Antoinette Henry Dunn, an accomplished pianist. Irene had a younger brother, Charles.
Her family briefly lived in St. Louis before moving back to her mother's hometown of Madison, Indiana after the death of her father in 1909. They lived next door to her mother's parents 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.
She took a part in the touring company of the show "Irene". After her Broadway debut in 1922's "The Clinging Vine", she landed roles in musicals on a regular basis. In 1929, Dunne was cast as Magnolia Hawks in the Chicago company of "Show Boat" and her marvelous performance led to a movie contract with RKO.
She made her screen debut in Leathernecking (1930). She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for role in her second film, Cimarron (1931). She made a couple classic weepies, Back Street (1932) and Magnificent Obsession (1935), then got to show off her musical abilities in Sweet Adeline (1935), Roberta (1935) and gave a top notch performance in Show Boat (1936). By 1938, Dunne was reportedly being paid $150,000 per movie.
Dunne entered a new phase in her career as a comedienne in such screwball classics as Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940). She was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her roles in Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth and 1939's Love Affair opposite Charles Boyer which was later remade as An Affair to Remember and again as Love Affair in 1994. Dunne's Love Affair is easily the finest telling of the story.
She switched back to dramatic roles in the early 1940s and made such classics as Penny Serenade (1941), reteamed with Cary Grant, The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Life with Father (1947). Although nearly fifty, Dunne kept her beauty and makeup artists were compelled to age her for I Remember Mama (1948), another Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role and The Mudlark (1950).
After completing It Grows on Trees (1952), Dunne retired from films, but remained active in television, politics, business and charitable concerns. 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. Dunne was appointed by President Eisenhower as one of five alternative delegates to the United Nations in 1957 and later served on the board of directors of Technicolor with actor George Murphy. When interviewed she always insisted she enjoyed every minute of her career. Dunne was too ill to accept her Kennedy Center Honors in 1985, but longtime fans were pleased to see her remembered.
Personal life: In 1928 she married New York-based dentist Francis Dennis Griffin and was his wife until his death in 1965. 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.)
Dunne later had two grandchildren, Mark Shinnick and Ann Shinnick, by Mary Frances Griffin Gage and her first husband, Richard Shinnick. The grandchildren spent much of their childhoods living with Dunne. (Click here to read more about Irene Dunne's family). She attended parties and entertained with her personal circle of friends that included Loretta Young, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, and Bob and Delores Hope.
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.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6440 Hollywood Blvd.
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.
Irene Dunne passed away September 4, 1990 as the result of heart failure. She is interred at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, and her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California. 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."
CLICK HERE to read more about the Indiana Historical Marker Ceremony for Irene Dunne in Madison, Indiana on May 19, 2006 at 4 PM.
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It Grows on Trees (1952) ~~ Polly Baxter
Mudlark, The (1950) ~~ Queen Victoria
Never a Dull Moment (1950) ~~ Kay
I Remember Mama (1948) ~~ Mama Hansen
Life with Father (1947) ~~ Vinnie Day
Anna and the King of Siam (1946) ~~ Anna Owens
Over 21 (1945) ~~ Paula Wharton
Together Again (1944) ~~ Anne Crandall
White Cliffs of Dover, The (1944) ~~ Susan Dunn Ashwood
Guy Named Joe, A (1943) ~~ Dorinda Durston
Show Business at War (1943) ~~ Herself
Lady in a Jam (1942) ~~ Jane Palmer
Unfinished Business (1941) ~~ Nancy Andrews
Penny Serenade (1941) ~~ Julie Gardiner Adams
My Favorite Wife (1940) ~~ Ellen Arden
When Tomorrow Comes (1939) ~~ Helen
Invitation to Happiness (1939) ~~ Eleanor Wayne
Love Affair (1939) ~~ Terry McKay
Joy of Living (1938) ~~ Margaret "Maggie" Garret
Awful Truth, The (1937) ~~ Lucy Warriner
High, Wide, and Handsome (1937) ~~ Sally Walterson
Show Boat (1936) ~~ Magnolia
Theodora Goes Wild (1936) ~~ Theodora Lynn
Magnificent Obsession (1935) ~~ Helen Hudson
Roberta (1935) ~~ Stephanie
Stingaree (1934) ~~ Hilda Bouverie
Age of Innocence, The (1934) ~~ Countess Ellen Olenska
Sweet Adeline (1934) ~~ Adeline Schmidt
This Man Is Mine (1934) ~~ Toni Dunlap
Ann Vickers (1933) ~~ Ann Vickers
If I Were Free (1933) ~~ Sarah Cazenove
No Other Woman (1933) ~~ Anna Stanley
Secret of Madame Blanche, The (1933) ~~ Sally St. John
Silver Cord, The (1933) ~~ Christina Phelps
Back Street (1932) ~~ Ray Schmidt
Thirteen Women (1932) ~~ Laura Stanhope
Symphony of Six Million (1932) ~~ Jessica
Bachelor Apartment (1931) ~~ Helene Andrews
Cimarron (1931) ~~ Sabra Cravat
Consolation Marriage (1931) ~~ Mary Brown Porter
Great Lover, The (1931) ~~ Diana Page
Slippery Pearls, The (1931) ~~ Herself
Leathernecking (1930) ~~ Delphine Witherspoon
TV APPEARANCES OF NOTE
"Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" (1951) TV Series ~~ Host (1951 et seq.)
"General Electric Theater" (1953) in the episode "Go Fight City Hall" 10/15/1962
"Saints and Sinners" (1962) in the episode "Source of Information" 10/15/1962
"Frontier Circus" (1961) in the episode "Dr. Sam" 10/26/1961
"DuPont Show with June Allyson, The" (1959) playing "Dr. Gina Kerstas" in the episode "Opening Door, The" 10/5/1959
"Ford Theatre" (1952) in the episode "Sheila" 5/24/1956
"Letter to Loretta" (1953) playing "Host" in the episode "Tropical Secretary" 5/24/1956
"Ford Theatre" (1952) in the episode "On the Beach" 5/24/1956
"Letter to Loretta" (1953) playing "Host" in the episode "Slander" 10/30/1955
"Ford Theatre" (1952) in the episode "Touch of Spring" 2/3/1955
"Ford Theatre" (1952) in the episode "Sister Veronica" 4/15/1954
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