Irene Dunne was an American stage, film and television actress and singer. She was nominated five times for the ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award during her extremely successful Hollywood career. She had a natural flair for acting in ridiculous situations and brought comedy along with beauty, grace and vivacity to Hollywood during its ‘Golden Age’. She could combine great depth in acting in comedy scenes which made her highly popular. She acted in stage-plays, films and on television programs with equal ease and dexterity. She maintained her privacy with utmost care which was the most outstanding part of her personality. Though she shared her beauty and talent with others she never shared her intimate moments with anybody, did not give any interviews or wrote her autobiography. There are no publicity photographs available of her husband or her daughter and she was never a source of gossip. Even after getting married to her husband who lived and worked on the opposite coast, she was never involved in any cheap publicity or gossip. She prevented herself from getting too involved the industry and kept to herself. She believed that ‘living’ was greater than ‘acting’.
Childhood & Early Life
Irene Dunne was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on December 20, 1898 to a steamboat inspector named Joseph John Dunn and music teacher Adelaide Henry.
She had a brother and together they moved to their grandparents’ home in Madison, Indiana, when her father died in 1909.
Irene received her initial piano lessons from her mother and also learnt singing and acting with her encouragement. She earned money for the family by singing with the choir at the ‘Christ Episcopal Church’.
She studied at the ‘Loretta Academy’ in St. Louis, Missouri, and graduated from the ‘Madison High School’ in 1916.
She spent the next two years at the ‘Indianapolis Conservatory of Music’ and graduated from there with a diploma in teaching.
She decided to be an opera singer and studied further for one year at the ‘Chicago Music College’ after winning a prestigious scholarship.
After completing one year at this college she auditioned for the ‘New York Metropolitan Opera Company’ in 1920 but was rejected as she was too young for the job.
She continued her studies at the ‘Chicago Music College’ for another year.
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Irene Dunne became a professional stage singer in 1921 after getting the attention of touring theater companies and auditioning for them. She added an ‘e’ to the end of her last name ‘Dunn’ around this time.
She made her Broadway debut in 1922 in the supporting role of ‘Tessie’ in theater production, ‘The Clinging Vine’.
In 1923 she acted for the full season in the light opera at Atlanta, Georgia.
The following year she went on a tour of the country as the lead role in ‘The Clinging Vine’. She continued with her stage career mainly in the female lead roles for some more time.
In 1929 she was selected by Florenz Ziegfeld for the role of Magnolia in the Chicago production of Broadway success ‘Show Boat’ produced by Kern and Hammerstein. She was immensely successful in portraying the character and was spotted by the Hollywood talent scouts and offered a contract with RKO studios in Hollywood.
He first role in a film was in ‘Leathernecking’ in 1930 which was a film version of the musical comedy ‘Present Arms’ staged in Broadway in 1928. Neither the film nor her role could create any impression on the audience.
She acted in the film ‘Cimarron’ in 1929 which was the most expensive production of RKO and she received her first Academy nomination for ‘Best Actress’ for her role in the film.
She started acting in emotional tearjerkers which were liked especially by women audiences such as ‘Back Street’ in 1932, ‘No Other Woman’ and ‘Ann Vickers’ in 1933 and ‘Magnificent Obsession’ in 1935.
She also acted in musicals like ‘Roberta’ in 1935 with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
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In 1936 she re-enacted the role of Magnolia in the musical film version of ‘Show Boat’ directed by James Whale which was a classic film.
In 1936 Irene won her second Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Actress’ for her lead role of ‘Theodora Goes Wild’ which showed her natural talent for doing comedy roles.
In 1937 she teamed up with Cary Grant to act in ‘The Awful Truth’ for which she won her third Academy Award nomination for ‘Best Actress’.
Her most popular film ‘Love Affair’ in 1939 was a great hit in which she played the lead role opposite Charles Boyer and was nominated for the ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award for the fourth time.
She again paired with Cary Grant for the film ‘My Favorite Wife’ in 1940 in which she showed her considerable skill in acting in comedy films. She also acted in the film ‘Penny Serenade’ with Cary Grant in 1940.
She acted in the films ‘Together Again’ and ‘A Guy named Joe’ in 1944, ‘Over 21’ in 1945, ‘Anna and The King of Siam’ in 1946 and a wonderful comedy ‘Life with Father’ in 1947.
Her role in the film ‘I Remember Mama’ in 1948 won her the fifth and last Oscar nomination for ‘Best Actress’.
In 1950 she gave a vivid portrayal of Queen Victoria in the film ‘The Mudlark’ and also acted in ‘Never a Dull Moment’ in the same year.
She retired from films in 1952 after doing her bit in the comedy ‘It Grows on Trees’.
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She continued to act in television programs for the next ten years like ‘What’s My Line’, ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour’, ‘Ford Theater’, ‘The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars’ and ‘It’s Showtime’.
After retiring from acting she appeared less and less in public but became involved in charitable and political issues. She was named as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations after she campaigned for President Eisenhower during the 1952 and the 1956 elections.
In 1965 she was the first woman to be elected to the board of ‘Technicolor’.
Awards & Achievements
Irene Dunne received the ‘Laetare Medal’ from the ‘Notre Dame University’ in 1949, the ‘Bellarmine Medal’ from the ‘Bellarmine College’ in 1965 and ‘Colorado’s Women of Achivement’ award in 1968.
She was named in the ‘International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame’ in 1958.
She was given a Star on the ‘Hollywood Walk of Fame’.
She was 5 times nominated for Oscar Award.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married Francis Griffin, a dentist from New York, in 1928.
She adopted a daughter, Mary Frances (nee Anna Mary Bush) in 1938.
Irene Dunne died in Los Angeles, California, on September 4, 1990, at the age of ninety-one.
Irene Dunne founded ‘The Irene Dunn Guild’ which has raised more than $20 million for charities till now.
She was called the ‘The Iron Maiden’ and Also ‘The First lady of Hollywood’ affectionately.