Irene Dunne

Active - 1930 - 1952  |   Born - Dec 20, 1898 in Louisville, Kentucky, United States  |   Died - Sep 4, 1990   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of a boat manufacturer and a concert pianist, American actress Irene Dunne began voice training lessons before the age of thirteen. Dunne's diligence won her a scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, but her dreams of a career with New York City's Metropolitan opera faded when she failed the audition. Still, there was an outlet for her talents in musical comedy, which she began in a touring company of the popular stage production Irene. After her Broadway debut in 1923, Dunne was able to secure leading roles in several musicals, and marry Francis J. Griffin, a New York dentist, with whom she remained married until his death in 1965. In 1929, Dunne was cast as Magnolia in the Chicago company production of Show Boat; her superlative performance led to a movie contract with RKO, where after a few inconsequential programmers like Leathernecking (1930), she became one of the top dramatic stars at that studio. In Ann Vickers (1933), she plays a lady doctor who undergoes an illegal abortion, and in The Age of Innocence (1934), Dunne played the same role reprised by Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1994 remake of that film. Dunne was finally permitted to show off her singing talents in Sweet Adeline (1935), and in 1936 Universal Pictures cast her in her stage role as Magnolia in the studio's definitive film version of Show Boat (1936).

After Show Boat, Dunne entered the second phase of her movie career as a comedienne, contributing hilarious performances to such screwball farces as Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937), and My Favorite Wife (1940). It was back to dramatic roles in the early 1940s, and as age crept up on Dunne, she made a seamless transition to starring character roles in such films as Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and Life with Father (1947). Approaching fifty, Dunne retained her classically beautiful features and; in fact, Hollywood makeup artists were compelled to draw lines on her face and fit her with heavy body suits for her "aged" roles in I Remember Mama (1948) and The Mudlark (1950). Upon completion of It Grows on Trees (1952), Dunne retired from films, though she remained active on television, notably in such Catholic-oriented programs as The Christophers. In recognition of her charitable work and interest in conservative political causes, Dunne was appointed by President Eisenhower as one of five alternative delegates to the United Nations in 1957.

Movie Highlights

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  • Studied to become an opera singer, but a failed audition at the Metropolitan Opera led her to acting.
  • Her career took off when she was cast as Magnolia in the road production of Florenz Ziegfeld's Show Boat in 1929.
  • Cary Grant called her his favorite actress to work with.
  • Following her retirement from films, she devoted much of her time to Republican political causes and Catholic charities.
  • Her grave site lists her birth year as 1901, though she was actually born in 1898.