The Lady Who Became a Clown
Few movie folk have the aloof dignity of Irene Dunne - and yet few can equal her flair for light comedy roles. She likes to play 'em, too, but is glad she is going back to more dramatic parts.
By Lucie Neville
The idea that the stage was no place for a lady went out along in the bustle era, but there still is some surprise when an actress is definitely and consistently a lady as Irene Dunne.
She never had been known to lose her temper on a set. She doesn't swear or smoke or drink, never wears slacks in public, and her behavior generally is impeccable.
Miss Dunne doesn't mind being called a lady. "There are so many worse things you can be called!" she said. "Not to mention the things that can be insinuated.
"I don't know how I got the reputation - perhaps because I don't smoke, when everybody around me does. I didn't start at 14 or so because of my voice. Then, my mother was southern and a very gentle person, and I went to a convent school. But I might as well take advantage of the opinion."
Whatever the reason, her recent change to light, high and otherwise ladylike comedy - of which Miss Dunne is almost the only exponent in Hollywood in these slapstick days - has been startling to her fans, who remember the forgiving heroine of "Cimarron" and the blind girl of "Magnificent Obsession."
"It amuses me that people are so interested in my comedy roles," Miss Dunne said. "I never got as much fan attention before, so I must have been very dry and dull in my previous roles. But I have begged to do lighter parts for a long time, and I really owe Columbia a debt for letting me play "The Awful Truth."
"I adore playing comedy, but I get very little artistic satisfaction out of it. It's so much easier to do. But it may seem that way only if you've done straight dramatic roles before - something like a batter who swings two bats- then when he picks up the third it seems such lighter and easier to handle."
In a way, as little is known about her as the recluse Garbo. She is not a night club habitue; she neither gives nor attends hilarious parties. She goes to movies and concerts and Hollywood's occasional operas. She is one of the colony's best women golfers, and has two holes-in-one to her credit.
She doesn't like slapstick or broad horseplay, but little gags amuse her and she enjoyed the mad scenes with Cary Grant in "The Awful Truth." One studio publicity man recalls her doing an imitation of Mickey Mouse, crawling on hands and knees, during an afternoon of posing for stills. None of the pictures were published.
Actors who have worked with her say that she is friendly, though reserved, and a good trouper. During the production of her latest picture, RKO's "Joy Of Living", a filter from an overhead lamp fell and landed in her lap. In Hollywood, and the theater, stagehands have a pretty trick of dropping sandbacks and other heavy objects near - and sometimes on - unpopular players.
Instead of screeching that somebody was trying to murder her, Miss Dunne merely commented, "Hmmm - so things are beginning to fall on me! I guess I'm not as well liked as I thought I was."
The perfect lady can take criticsm, too - when it comes from someone she thinks has the right to give it. John Stahl, who directed her in "Back Street" and later in "Magnificent Obsession", took her apart mercilessly. But she accepted it quietly and said, "He's good for me. He makes me do things I couldn't do otherwise."
These pictures illustrate Miss Dunne's recent absorption in comedy roles. At right, she is shown with Douglas Fairbank, Jr. in "Joy Of Living"; below with Cary Grant in "The Awful Truth."
EXIBITIONISTIC Hollywood can't understand Miss Dunne's apparent avoidance of publicity - even a lady likes to see her name in print - especially since she hires a personal press agent. Since she refuses to see interviewers either at the studio or her home while she is working on a picture, and usually leaves on a vacation as soon as it is finished, it is difficult to corner her.
She will answer questions docilely - in fact, she prefers direct question and answer interviews to general, casual talk - but she does not contribute in the way of anecdote or elaboration. Miss Dunne, as an actress, shows astonishingly little flair for personal dramatization.
Since she is happily married, her publicity cannot depend on any of the tried-and-true angles as a romance with her leading man (always good during the run of a picture) or an interesting divorce case. She had been married some eight years to Dr. Francis Griffin, who is equally shy of publicity.
Their two-year-old adopted daughter, Mary Frances, never is photographed, either. This attitude is shared by many stars, partly because they think it no-sporting to capitalize on their children's appeal. Miss Dunne's reason is that the year's probation period, to which all foster parents are held by adoption homes and orphanages, is just completed. The girl is not at display during interviews, and she is protected as much as possible from tourist's gawking.
The Griffin's new house in Holmby Hills is a charming place with nothing modernistic or aggressively masculine in it. A paneled study with rose marbe fireplace opens into the white hall; a white paneled drawing room with 18th Century period furniture and a grand piano faces a bricked patio and garden. Since Dr. Griffin's practice is in New York, he is not in Hollywood a great deal of time but theirs is a commuting marriage and whichever one is free makes the trip to see the other.
Miss Dunne doesn't consider her home or marriage a public-ity property, but she likes to talk about her daughter, pleased that the little girl is friendly, and any discussion of music interests her.
It was singing that started her towards films, though "Cimarron", the picture that established her, was non musical. Previous to that, she had been in the flop "Leathernecking" and was about to return to the stage, when Edna Ferber, author of "Cimarron," suggested Miss Dunne for the leading role in the film version of her novel.
Before she was graduated from Chicago Musical College, she got the title role in "Irene" when she accompanied a friend to the try-outs. The casting director looked at the two and said, "I don't want that girl," indicating her friend, "but I'll take the other one."
"Wasn't that marvelous!" Miss Dunne's press agent exclaimed when the story was told. "Imagine a young girl with no experience just stepping into an important part like that!"
The non-exibitionist Miss Dunne refused to rise to the bait. "That didn't mean anything except that "Irene" was a fool-proof part," she said placidly. "There must have been at least eight road companies of it, and our company played all the tank towns in the south.
"They wanted to prove that they could take any girl with a fair voice and no stage training and make her a success. Of course, I had such conficence then."
Following were several musical comedies, including "Showboat," which she also made in the film version. However, she doesn't want to repeat with "Irene" because fool-proof plays are not fool-proof movies, she thinks, especially if they have been smash hits as the Edna Ferber-Jerome Kern musical.
" 'Showboat'was a perfect play, and that's why the film was so hard to make," she said. "The great disadvantage is that you seldom repeat a success. At least, I wasn't satisfied that I was as good in the film as in the stage version."
MISS DUNNE'S manager is credited with expert handling in his leasing her to studios that make the most of her various talents. Musicals, or comedies in which she sings a little, are usually made at RKO. Her latest picture there has a Jerome Kern score, including a love song she sings to young Doug Fairbanks in a recording booth. Straight comedies are made at Columbia, and dramas at Paramount and Universal.
In following "The Awful Truth" immediately with another comedy, "Joy Of Living" (which was orginally tiltled "Joy Of Loving" but censored), she is going against her own judgement.
"I think it's a great mistake to make one comedy after another," she said, "Now I'd like to do a complete turnabout and play the heaviest thing I can find. That will probably be 'Marie Curie' because I have one picture to make for Universal, which owns that story."
She hopes that her fans will approve her return to drama, and is somewhat surprised that people think she herself has changed just because her roles have. Yet she does admit that she is easier to live with when she is playing comedy. A day of clowning leaves her in the same mood that evening, one of heavy emoting finds her still the serious, somewhat morose tragedy queen.
Asked about her nomination for the 1937 Academy Award for the best actress, because of "The Awful Truth" she said, "Oh, I didn't think I had a chance. Things like that don't happen to me. I've been up three times before - for 'Cimarron'which was a serious picture, and for 'Theodora Goes Wild' a comedy last year. If I did a 'Zola' I might have a chance."
So her chance will come with her portrayal of the radium scientist.
(The Lima News, Sunday May 8. 1938)