She was one of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era of the 1930s, equally at home in dramas, musicals or screwball comedies. When Irene Dunne died of a heart attack last week at her home in Los Angeles at age 85, film buffs knew they had lost one of the most underrated actresses of all time. She landed five Oscar nominations but never took one home.
Dunne may have lacked the cachet of her more flamboyant celluloid sisters, but her 41 eclectic films include some of filmland’s most entertaining: Cimarron, Back Street, Roberta, The Magnificent Obsession, Show Boat, Theodora Goes Wild, A Guy Named Joe, The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife and I Remember Mama. Yet despite Dunne’s elegant looks and shining screen presence, her spice rack of life lacked a few essential ingredients for a movie queen, namely temperament and scandal. A devout Catholic, she was married only once, to a dentist named Francis Griffin who died in 1965. (Their adopted daughter, Mary Frances, lives in California and has two children.) “It’s very hard to write a good story about Irene,” noted the columnist Earl Wilson, “because she was too much of a lady to be good copy.”
Trained in music, the Kentucky-born Dunne first played Irene in a touring company of the musical of that name. After several years on Broadway, she switched to movies in 1930. When she retired from films 22 years later, Dunne kept a low profile, preferring her private life in L.A. to be just that.
Friends say Dunne had a wonderful, sometimes saucy, sense of humor, but that wasn’t part of her public persona. She didn’t drink and was always impeccably turned out, even refusing to wear slacks. A staunch Republican, Dunne was appointed as a delegate to the United Nations under Eisenhower, and she was one of the recipients of a Kennedy Center Honor during the Reagan administration. “Losing her is like losing a member of the family,” said Reagan. “She’s a special lady who will live in our hearts forever.” For everyone who loves movies, that’s the unawful truth.