Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Pause Before We Are Heading For Comedy

the radiant Miss Dunne in her mid-forties

Although we are only in 1936 and there are still 16 years to come of Irene Dunne in the movies, we are halfway through with our journey. In her first 6 years in Hollywood, five of them under her initial contract with RKO, Irene made about the half of her total of 41 films. This sheer amount deserves a look back before we are going to leave for the second half.

Today Irene Dunne is mainly remembered because of her comedies and as co-star of Cary Grant, which is justified and unjust at the same time. The expression “versatility” is never far away as soon as the name Irene Dunne is mentioned and the fundament of this is her early work. We have melodramas, musicals, conversation pieces in quick succession, and even a western and such an oddity as “Stingaree” found their place. Irene did sing Jerome Kern, opera, music hall ditties; played shop-girls, opera singers, a countess, a fashion designer, a steel mill worker's wife, a secretary and well-off Mrs. Jim Dunlap, just to name a few. In a year like 1934 movie-goers had the occasion to watch Miss Dunne in such diverse motion pictures as “This Man Is Mine”, “Stingaree”, “The Age Of Innocence” and “Sweet Adeline”, thus “Irene Dunne could do it all” was basically established in those early years. And another fundament was laid during that period, Irene's screen persona: ladylike, decent, a vital truthfulness. Those elements - versatility and a defined screen persona - were the ground to build on the next years of Irene's career.

Miss Sophistication in 1941

This ground was effectively, successfully and gratifyingly tilled in Irene's time as a freelance actress. Of course those years gave us the highlights and - not always but most of the times - the superior films. One reason for this is the simple fact that Irene worked with co-stars of the same league as herself; such names as Cary Grant, Charles Boyer - Irene's deservedly so favorite onscreen partners - or William Powell and Spencer Tracy only crossed Irene's path starting with 1937. This second career half bestowed us with wonderful scripts, an impressing list of accomplished directors and last not least a throughout beautifully presented and photographed Irene. Her image in those years is seamless, and the fact that Irene had her hand in picking scripts, the freedom to reject projects and director's approval certainly was part of this. Additionally Irene conquered the genre of comedy, which was the perfect playground to bring her delightful screen persona into full bloom. Especially the comedies took advantage of Irene's on screen and kindly correlating off screen image and deliberately spoofed it with Miss Dunne voluntarily going along.
In her forties, at an age when many actresses have to face a lull in their careers, Irene Dunne was flying high; her success at the box office reflected by her top spot on the list of Hollywood earners.

Those are all good reasons to concentrate on this later phase of Irene's acting career but this would be too narrowly considered. One shouldn't forget that Miss Dunne was already a star before she embarked on comedy; and though most of those early films don't offer the sophistication, wit, finesse of their follow-ups they offer indeed a lot of quintessential Dunne acting and singing. 

Irene Dunne And "Show Boat" Part 2

Irene, an ingenue once again...
It seems I have to expand the last post, according to a newly published interview, Miss Dunne did indeed love her version of “Show Boat.” Obviously she had the chance to rewatch this film after she spoke with John Kobal and changed her opinion of it.
The author, film and TV critic James Bawden, talked to Irene several times in the 70s, starting with a visit at her home in 1974 and some telephone conversations as follow- ups. In 1977, this amounted to the article “A Visit With Irene Dunne” for “American Classic Screen” . Apparently Bawden did not use all of his material and compiled the highlights of his talks with Irene to the aforementioned interview. Here is the part about “Show Boat”:

BAWDEN: You´ve said “Show Boat” (1936) was one of your favorite films.
DUNNE: Well, I had played Magnolia for years in New York and on tour. The 1929 (first movie) version was terrible. They used a “new” score. “Junior” Laemmle, who was running Universal by then, had to make (her version, the first remake) by the end of the 1936 or lose the rights, so we worked day and night on it. Yes, I do accept that I was at least 10 years too old by then, but movie magic made me an ingenue once again. Our version (1936) had Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan from the original. But when they told me that Jimmy Whale was to direct, I initially balked. He had done “Frankenstein.” It was sheer, exhausting fun making it, but the cost overrun tremendous. Junior just fell in love with the material and couldn´t stop pouring money into it and , while very popular, just couldn´t make back its costs. Junior lost control of the studio because of it. Only little Deanna Durbin saved the studio from completely folding. (Later) MGM got the rights and suppressed our version and announced (a new version) as a (Jeanette) MacDonald - (Nelson) Eddy vehicle, which wouldn´t have worked. (MGM ultimately remade “Show Boat” in 1952 with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel.)

A couple of years ago they found a … print (of her 1936 version) and made a new negative and showed it at a festival and it really does hold up. It´s one I´m very proud of.

Irene mentioned that she really liked only sixteen of her 41 films, never exactly naming the titles, which keeps us still busy trying to figure out all her likes and dislikes. Of course we know about most of the films, and I personally found her disfavors always comprehensible but “Show Boat” was the exception to the rule. So it´s good to know that Miss Dunne was deservedly proud of this one.
Credit where credit is due!