by Mary Frances Griffin
Sometimes people ask me what it´s like to be Irene Dunne´s daughter. That´s an easy one. Being her daughter is wonderful. But now MODERN SCREEN says, "Tell us about her. Is she as heavenly as she looks? As serene? What´s she really like, this gentle, beautiful woman?" And that´s a hard one, because how can you tell people about her? About that cute tongue-in-check look she has when she´s about to put one over on Daddy? That quick shout of laughter when the joke´s on her? The way her cool hand feels on your forehead when you´re sick in bed?
I have three pictures of Mother on my dresser at school, and each of them shows her differently. In one - the one in which she is caring for the flowers in her garden - she looks sort of quiet and soft, the way she looks when we are having a serious talk. She´s the best person to talk to, because she´s so reasonable and fair, and she´ll always listen to my side of an argument. The second picture shows her in dungarees and plaid shirt. That´s the way she looks weekends when we go on a long walk. In the third picture mother is wearing a leopard hat, and she looks awfully beautiful - like a movie star. I can never decide which picture I like the best.
Before I have you thinking that life is always sweetness and light at our house, let me assure that Mother and I not always see eye to eye. She´s strict; she has rules and I frequently rebel. For instance, 9:30 is my bedtime on weekends and holidays, and you know that´s early. I am not allowed to live at the movies the way some of the kids are. What´s more I can only see the movies Mother okays, and what a one-woman Johnston office she is! She´s strict about some other things, too. When we have to sell tickets to benefits for school, Mother doesn´t like me to heckle friends, relatives or neighbors. Once I sold dozen of tickets to some play to Claudette Colbert and Buddy De Sylva, and I got a prize for selling the most tickets, but Mother was wild.
I guess the thing that Mother is strictest about is being on time. The night of the premiere of Anna And The King Of Siam, Mother and Daddy were all dressed and sitting downstairs, and I was still splashing around in the tub. Mother called up, "We can´t wait for you very much longer, Missey," and Daddy said, "Hurry up now, Murph!" ("Murph" is a contraction of my real name, Mary Frances, which Daddy and I adore, but which Mother doesn´t like at all.) I hurried then ( in a leisurely sort of way, Mother claims), but before I could get my dress on they had to leave. That´s really learning the hard way!
hillbilly at heart...
Mother has that heavenly sense of humor, and in spite of a kind of dignity and reserve that´s just part of her, she´s not a bit of a stuffed shirt. (This is slightly off the record, but she actually chews bubble gum on occasion, and incidentally, she´s not very good at it.) I remember the first day I brought home that Jo Stafford recording of "Temptation". You know the crazy hill-billy-ish thing? Mother absolutely hooted over it. I´d catch her singing it under her breath. In time, she got to hate it, but she did like it, and to me that´s wonderful.
Even when Mother gets mad at me, her sense of humor generally takes over before very long. Last fall, I started school at Marymount in Santa Barbara, and the day before I was to go, Mother and I decided what I´d wear, so that there´d be no confusion on the big day. We´d choosen a lovely white dress and when I got up in the morning it occured to me that the white dress would be lovelier with if I had a better tan. It wasn´t easy, but I managed to cover my arms, legs and face with that tan leg makeup, and when I was finished I thought I was an absolute dream. Mother took one look at me, and did one of those "ee-e-k" faces like in the funny books. "You look as if you were trying out for the chorus," she kept sputtering all the time we were scrubbing my makeup off, "instead of going to a convent-" And then she began to giggle.
Mother is hep. Really she is. I´m rather given to slang, and a lot of grwon-ups wouldn´t grasp what I was saying most of the time. Mother grasps every word. She says that living with a child who has the slang-itis is like living with someone who has the measles. You don´t want any part of the darn stuff, but somehow you catch it. Mother makes up wonderful nonsense words of her own like flumola, yicado and slacky-lacky. They don´t mean anything defenite and can be nouns, verbs or adjectives.
Those two! They´ve been married for twenty years, and woudn´t you think they´d be beginning to take each other a little bit for granted? Not at all. Mother gets all glamored up for dinner with Daddy, as if he were - oh, Dana Andrews or someone. And on anniversaries or special days like Valentine´s Day, she always wears Daddy´s current favorite dress. Daddy always sends flowers on special occasions, and Mother gets all pink and smiley over them.
Mothe makes up little verses to go with her presents, but I can´t seem to do that. Somehow I can say it with music better, and so i´ve written two pieces of music, one for Mother (sort of Debussy-ish light melody) and one for Daddy - with crashing chords that sound sort of like laughter - in which I´ve tried to tell them both that I love them very much.
(Editor´s note: Mary Frances is too modest to tell you this, but Columbia Records like these pieces of music and wanted her to work out a couple more so they could do an album of them. Her mother reports that M.F.´s application and concentration haven´t been too wonderful and that she hasn´t started working on them yet.)
In addition to all her other wonderful qualities, Mother is understanding. She knows what I want almost before I know myself. For instance, last Christmas Eve I told her that I wished for heavens I´d thought to hint for a manicure kit for Christmas. Mother said, "Oh, tsk-tsk, too bad you didn´t, darling - " And then on Christmas morning, there was the most yicado manicure kit you´ve ever seen. Maybe the most understanding thing Mother has ever done was this...
Last year, when I was still at day school, we had a play called The Symphony of Blue. I had a dance to do in it, and a lot of what happened in the play depended on my dance. The day of the play I woke up with a raging, blazing fever. I heard Mother call the school and tell them I wouldn´t be able to appear and then everything went black. I moaned and pawed the air and behaved like an infant (and after all I´m twelve!). But if you knew how I wanted to be in that play. Mother kept taking my temperature and looking more miserable every time she took it, and then about four o´clock she said to me, "I´m going to do an awful thing, Missey. And awful thing. After a while I´m going to let you get up and put on that ridiculous costume and go and dance."
mother knows best...
"It can´t kill her," I heard her telling Daddy. "The doctor says she isn´t coming down with anything contagious. And this is important. This is big -"
I went and did my dance, and the next day the fever was gone. The doctor couldn´t explain it, but I think I can. I just know Mother prayed it out of me all the way to school in the car.
People are always asking me which of Mother´s movies is my favorite. That´s hard to say, but I always think her last one is best. Right now, naturally, my favorite is Life With Father, and I Remember Mama will be as soon as I see it. I can hardly wait. I used to mind terribly that Mother was at the studio so much, and I´d long for her to retire and stay home with me all the time. I´ve got more sense now, and I´m so proud of her. I never want her to retire. She´s my favorite mother, but she´s my favorite actress, too.
(Modern Screen, June 1948)
Thank you, Janine, for the article!