Irene Dunne can be remembered by movie audiences as the romantic Magnolia in Show Boat, the spirited Sabra Cravat of Edna Ferber's Cimarron, for sharing the honors and songs with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Roberta, matching wits with Cary Grant in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife, and sharing dramatic moments with him in Penny Serenade. There was that Love Affair with Charles Boyer, Life with Father, The White Cliffs of Dover and Anna and the King of Siam. But, perhaps most of all, we remember Mama.
It was in 1948, 18 years after her first major film role, in Cimarron, that Irene Dunne played her "favorite role," the loving, self-sacrificing Norwegian mother in I Remember Mama, for which she won one of her five Oscar nominations.
"I thought she was a wonderful woman," she said. "It was probably the only time I played a real character part. It will always be very special to me."
Dunne, who was equally successful in tragedy, comedy, and musical productions, was the daughter of Joseph John Dunne, a supervisory inspector of steamships for the United Sates Government. Her mother, Adelaide Antoinette (Henry) Dunne, was a musician and encouraged her daughter to pursue her own career in the arts.
Young Irene's first pursuit was at the age of five when she tripped across a local stage as Mustard Seed in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Her "debut" caused no great stir in dramatic circles but impressed the little actress.
"In fact," she admits, "until I read Shakespeare in my teens, I honestly thought Mustard Seed was the star of the show!"
Following her father's death, when she was 12, she moved with her mother and brother, Charles, to Madison, Indiana, to live with grandparents. During the next few years, Irene studied voice and piano with private teachers and for the first time earned her own money by singing on Sundays in the church choir. Following a year's study at a music conservatory in Indianapolis, she accepted a position as music and art teacher in East Chicago, Indiana. En route to East Chicago, she saw a newspaper ad for an annual scholarship contest run by the Chicago Musical College. She won the scholarship, which enabled her to study at the college for a year, after which she headed for New York.
Her first goal in New York was to add her name to the roster of the Metropolitan Opera Company. She was auditioned but rejected for being "too young, too inexperienced, and too slight." She did, however, win the leading role in a road company of Irene.. It was followed by other plays: The Clinging Vine, Lollipop, The City Chap and Sweetheart Time, during which time she sandwiched in intermittent study at the Chicago Musical College from which she graduated with high honors in 1926.
In 1929, after appearing on Broadway in Yours Truly and marrying a young New York dentist, Dr. Francis Dennis Griffin, she had a chance meeting in a New York office building with Florenz Ziegfeld. He invited her to audition for a part in his forthcoming production of Show Boat. She was given the lead role of Magnolia in the road company, which marked the turning point in her fledgling career.
She played to full houses for 72 weeks in just about every large city in the East and came to the notice of Hollywood. By 1930, she was under contract to RKO.
Although her unmemorable film debut was in a minor motion picture, Leathernecking, her first dramatic leading role was as Sabra Cravat in Cimarron, for which she was nominated for her first Oscar. Back Street followed, and then came Magnificent Obsession.
When the film musical came back into favor in 1935, Dunne starred with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Jerome Kern's Roberta, the film in which she sang "Don't Ever Leave Me" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." It was not until the following year that she recreated her stage role in the film version of Show Boat.
In what was termed one of the "screwball" comedies of the mid-1930s, Theodora Goes Wild, Dunne took on the role of a prim New Englander who writes a daring book and then tries to live up to it, "a comedienne of rare ability" and nominated for a second Oscar.
She attributed what was considered her "natural flair for comedy" to her father, whom she described as "one of the most fun-loving people I've ever known." She was later teamed with another fun-loving gentleman, Cary Grant, for The Awful Truth, for which she was again an Oscar nominee. She was later to star with Grant a second time in My Favorite Wife. Between the two films were two other career highlights: Love Affair, which earned her another Oscar nomination, and When Tomorrow Comes, both with Charles Boyer. This era of her career was not devoted entirely to comedy, however. In 1941, she again starred with Cary Grant in Penny Serenade.
Before going on to her portrayal of a Ferry Command pilot in A Guy Named Joe opposite Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson, Dunne kept up her musical career as guest artist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the 1941-42 season.
In 1944, she appeared in a film adaptation of Alice Duer Miller's narrative poem The White Cliffs of Dover, playing an American married to an Englishman during World War II. That same year, she and Charles Boyer were teamed for a third time in the comedy-drama Together Again, in which she played a widowed small-town mayor who becomes romantically involved with a New York sculptor. Anna and the King of Siam with Rex Harrison, Life With Father with William Powell, and I Remember Mama followed between 1945 and 1948. In the early 1950s, she starred in Never a Dull Moment, The Mudlark, in which she portrayed Queen Victoria, and It Grows on Trees.
Toward the end of the decade, her life moved away from acting toward the many projects she had undertaken on behalf of public works and charities. In 1957, she was appointed as a United States delegate to the General assembly of the United Nations. Her work for the Red Cross, the American Cancer Society, and numerous other charities earned her much admiration. Her many awards include the prestigious Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame as an outstanding member of the United States Catholic Iaity.