A rare chat with a star who left it all behind
by Jim Bawden
Jim Bawden interviewed Irene Dunne in his years as a film and television columnist for The Toronto Star.He has drawn this column from his original notes.
Irene in the 70s
Getting Irene Dunne to consent to an interview was one of my hardest assignments. I first wrote to her in 1972 and her secretary wrote back asking for clippings to make sure I was a legitimate columnist! Nothing came of it.
Then, in 1974, while in Los Angeles, I spoke to her brother, Charles, who passed on another request. This time Dunne quickly agreed.
I took a taxi to her swank Holmy Hills home, arriving at the agreed time of 1 p.m. She had given strict instructions that the interview could not take more than an hour, but she served tea and cookies and we wound up talking until it was dark outside. Then she sent me back to my hotel in a chauffeur-driven limousine.
After that pleasant start with Dunne, we talked several more times on the phone over the next few years.
Here are the highlights of the conversations:
BAWDEN: How did you get from Broadway to Hollywood in 1930?
DUNNE: Well, I'd been on Broadway starting in 1922 and then I did the road tours of musicals, passing through your city of Toronto in 1928, I believe it was. I'd always wanted a career at The Met but I flunked two auditions. In those days they were looking for girls with far more sizable voices than I possessed. At one audition I met another girl, Jeanette McDonald, and she flunked, too. I guess Magnolia in "Show Boat" was my biggest moment but by 1929-30 musicals on Broadway and on the road were dead. Something called talkies had killed them off. Then along came the Depression and my agent suggested Hollywood. I'd never thought of doing silents but I needed work so I took an RKO offer. After all it was a musical. Can you believe it was about singing Marines? But "Leathernecking" (1930) had production problems. By the time we finished musicals were out of vogue. So every time I open my mouth in that one - plop! - the next scene comes up. They just snipped all songs and the whole thing was excruciatingly bad.
I was packing my dressing room when Richard Dix stuck his head in and asked me to test for Sabra in "Cimarron" (1931). I got the part and I got a movie career out of it. I never thought it would last - my husband stayed in New York until 1936. I got an Oscar nomination (and so did Richard and Wesley Ruggles, our director) and the movie won a best picture.
Irene Dunne with Richard Dix in the epic multi-generational western "Cimarron"(1931) from the Edna Ferber best seller. It won the Best Picture Academy Award and made her a movie star.
All that helped me get a continuance of my RKO contract, but I was stuck for years in weepers. It's funny I always had an enlarged memory of "Cimarron," but hadn't seen the darned thing since 1931. MGM bought if for a remake and suppressed the original and it didn't resurface until a few years ago at a retrospective of my films. I saw it and thought it was awfully hammy but I'm guessing that was the style back then. But it no longer is one of my favorite films at all. Only the great land rush scene holds up.
BAWDEN: You suffered for your art.
DUNNE: Not my art! These films were big at the box office. RKO was a strange studio, I'd exchange scripts with Ann Harding and Connie Bennett. We three made the same stories over and over. On one vacation I went to Universal and suffered some more in "Back Street" (1932). Then I suffered at MGM in "The Secret Of Madame Blanche." It was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, can you believe it? They then wrote "The Thin Man"! Ours was a "Madame X" storyline, all very tangled, but I got to sing some opera.
BAWDEN: What sort of studio was RKO?
DUNNE: It was located in several lots, parts of other studios that merged in 1931. RCA bought up FBO which was owned by Jack Kennedy's father, Joe, plus the KAO theater chain (Keith-Albee-Orpheum) plus Pathe and Cecil De Mille's studio and each had their own lots. I'd walk through a doorway in one scene and shoot the exterior one place and the interior at another location! One lot was right beside Paramount, another was in Culver City. It was all too confusing. The back lot was at Encino. RKO was the first, I think, to use sound on film instead of the cumbersome disks used at some of the other studios.
The economy had crashed but RKO kept announcing movie chains they were buying. "Cimarron" cost so much that it was listed as a loss until they re-released it a few years later. Connie, Ann and Helen Twelvetrees were all Pathe stars originally. Wheeler and Woolsey were the house comics. Joel McCrea, Ricardo Cortez and Mary Astor were all under contract at RKO. Dix came over after Paramount dropped him because he was considered very expensive. I remember David O. Selznick arrived just after "Cimarron" was released to be the new production head. Great Kate Hepburn came onboard as his first acquisition and just as he was leaving David hired Fred Astaire and the modern musical was born. But in 1933 the company sank into receivership and I thought it best to leave as soon as I could. That was at the end of 1935.
BAWDEN: You just seemed to churn out your RKO weepers.
DUNNE: We'd do them in about three weeks -- or 18 days. We worked Saturdays. But a great director like Greg LaCava on "Symphony Of Six Million" (1932) could get everything done with ease in that time frame. "Thirteen Women" (1932) was so silly. Myrna Loy was an East Indian vowing revenge on the sorority girls who had mistreated her as a student. Minnie later said is she'd really killed me off she could have gotten all my juicy parts in the years ahead. And you know we never worked together again.
"The Silver Cord" (1933) is one of my missing films from that period. It was considered a hard-headed indictment of mother love. I liked making "This Man Is Mine" (1934) because I enjoyed acting with Clive Brook. He was very dissatisfied with Hollywood by then and preparing to leave. This kind of movie couldn't have been made a year later with the Code then in place. It was the end for that kind of weeper for awhile.
"The Silver Cord," publicity for "Thirteen Women" with Myrna Loy, publicity for "Symphony Of Six Million" with Ricardo Cortez
BAWDEN: Then you made "Magnificent Obsession" (1935) with Robert Taylor.
DUNNE: It was the best of the bunch, I agree. Universal got Bob Taylor on loan and groomed him and he became a big star off it just as Rock Hudson did in the remake. John Stahl was the slowest of directors but he got what he wanted.
BAWDEN: But tell me about the time you almost made a movie with Laurence Olivier.
DUNNE: Oh, that was in 1933 and Larry had just finished a film with Ann Harding at RKO and they kept him on for another one with me. Then the reviews for the Harding movie came in and were devastating and the studio was being pounded by the Depression. The flats were up, we'd done costume and makeup changes but RKO just cancelled it. The heads said it wouldn't make any money as projected so they killed it and lent Larry out to MGM for "Queen Christina" where Garbo asked he be dropped after five days of filming. And so he went home and became a great actor. And that's how I almost worked with Larry Olivier.
BAWDEN: You were moving back into musicals.
DUNNE: Warners borrowed me for "Sweet Adeline" (1934). I'm trying to remember who they gave up in return. Oh, yes, it was Bette Davis for "Of Human Bondage." Our musical was quite sweet with beautifully staged numbers and I was a Jerome Kern girl in that one as I always was in movies. But the public just didn't buy it and it failed at the box office. Then back at RKO I made "Roberta" with Rogers and Astaire and Randy Scott as my leading man. Now that one was a roaring hit and I had some favorite songs including "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." But MGM bought it for a remake and it was out of circulation for decades. It has resurfaced and they used it at a salute to me at the L.A. Film Festival and it's quite charming. And now people can see it on TV. And one neighbor said "Oh, Irene, you got billing above Astaire and Rogers. How did that happen?" And I said: "Why, yes, I used to be a big star. I really used to be." And RKO planned to re-team the three of us in "Follow The Fleet," but I'd flown the coop by then. My contract was up and I went bravely forth as a freelancer and never signed an exclusive long term contract again. Harriet Hillard replaced me in "Follow The Fleet."
Two memorable Irene Dunne musicals of the 1930s: At left, Dunne with romantic lead Randolph Scott. At right, the poster for the 1936 version of "Show Boat" starring Dunne.
BAWDEN: How did that work?
DUNNE: Well, at RKO, if I refused a part I went on suspension. It was Ronnie Colman who told me to take a short term non-exclusive contracts - he was at Fox and Selznick and MGM and got great parts that way. And Claudette had a Paramount deal that ler her freelance one picture a year. So I signed with Columbia, Universal, Paramount and figured that way I'd get at least one good feature a year and it worked for the next 15 years. And when I turned down roles, as I frequently did, nobody could suspent me for months on end. And Cary Grant, Roz Russell, Charles Boyer -- oh, a whole lot of us soon started working that way.
BAWDEN: You've said "Show Boat" (1936) was one of your favorite films.
DUNNE: Well, I had played Magnolia for years in New York and on tour. The 1929 (first movie) version was terrible. They used a "new" score. "Junior" Laemmle, who was running Universal by then, had to make (her version, the first remake) by the end of 1936 or lose the rights, so we worked day and night on it. Yes, I do accept that I was at least 10 years too old by then, but movie magic made me an ingenue once again. Our version (1936) had Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan from the original. But when they told me Jimmy Whale was to direct, I initially balked. He had done "Frankenstein." It was sheer, exhausting fun making it, but the cost overrun was tremendous. Junior just fell in love with the material and couldn't stop pouring money into it and, while very popular, it just couldn't make back its costs. Junior lost control of the studio because of it. Only little Deanna Durbin saved the studio from completely folding. (Later) MGM got the rights and suppressed our (1936) version and announced (a new version) as a (Jeanette) MacDonald-(Nelson) Eddy vehicle, which wouldn't have worked. (MGM ultimately remade "Show Boat" in 1952 with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel.)
A couple of years ago they found a... print (of her 1936 version) and made a new negative and showed it at a festival and it really does hold up. It's one
I'm very proud of.
BAWDEN: Your first comedy was "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936)?
DUNNE: Melvyn Douglas just got me through that. He'd say "Take a pause, right there. A laugh is coming." Or "Say that line quickly and toss it away." And (director) Richard Boleslawski could do everything. He'd done that Garbo thing ("The Painted Veil") and then he did the one with Dietrich in color ("The Garden Of Allah"). He was horribly overweight, always a sandwich in his mouth. I'm not satisfied with "Theodora." You can see my nervousness. I was trying too hard. I was learning that comedy is hardest of all. You can wind up just looking silly. But the comedy films are the ones that endure. "Theodora" was out of circulation for a long time. Columbia was trying to make it into a Broadway show with Carol Channing. I'm not kidding you. And predictably they just couldn't do it. Because by then who cared it a girl wrote a risque novel?
BAWDEN: The first time you worked with Cary Grant was on "The Awful Truth" (1937).
DUNNE: It was just an accident. Columbia bought up a lot of properties once owned by Pathe and this script was there. It had been a big Broadway comedy in the Twenties with Roland Young. Then there was a 1929 movie with Ina Claire, which I've never seen. Leo McCarey convinced Harry Cohn at Columbia he could rework it and really it still was a play. You can spot the acts, first at our house, then the sports club, then my apartment and then Ralph Bellamy's. Simple sets. Few actors. Leo thought it would work well in the Depression - all those rich people having their own sets of troubles. Cary had just started at Columbia and I'd never met him before this.
Dunne gives Cary Grant a bad time in "The Awful Truth," one of three films she made with Grant.
We just worked from the first moment. He's a generous actor. He can afford to be, any man that gorgeous, and who'd be watching little old me? He begged to get out of it and said he'd do pictures for free. Leo wouldn't let him go. And do you know these two looked like one another. Cary became Leo and vice versa. But much of it was improvised on the set. I was playing - badly - on the piano "Home On The Range" and Ralph Bellamy was singing, unevenly, and (Studio Head) Harry (Cohn) walks by, takes one look and leaves shaking his head. But it made me. It made Cary. Suddenly we are hailed as the new funsters and it was all so strange.
BAWDEN: Talk to me about "High, Wide And Handsome" (1937), which you just told me is among your favorite films.
Dunne: Paramount took the "Show Boat" team (composers Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern) and had write them a musical about the oil drilling industry in Pennsylvania in 1859. It was a huge production and just before we started shooting the studio bosses withdrew Technicolor and substituted black and white to save costs. And Gary Cooper suddenly left because he thought his part inferior to mine, which it was not. Randolph Scott came in the last minute but he lacked Coop's star qualities as much as I love him as an actor. But years later the director Rouben Mamoulian told me at a party it was the presecutor in his mind and Oscar's for "Oklahoma". Can you believe that? There were some wonderful songs but not a one became a standard and that was a drawback. Somebody said audiences left the theater humming the scenery, which was very cruel but quite true. It didn't get people involved enough in its story. And that was the end for me as far as big musicals were concerned.
BAWDEN: Did you admire Charles Boyer?
DUNNE: Yes! He hated that French lover nonsense. Charles had a paunch and receding hair line but on him it looked fine. "Love Affair" (1939) is an old story that worked because he was such a reticent actor. He'd never overdo anything. And it just all came together so smoothly. Every actress who worked with him - Jean Arthur, Loretta (Young), Garbo - he made us look so much better. Charles still jokes he'd always have to get his hair cut because the final clinch would have the girl kissing him in closeup and all you'd see of him was the back of his head. They had a recent screening and I went and loved it all over again so I just had to phone Charles up and tell him how wonderful he was. And he said "Oh, so you finally saw me!" I guess he was remarking how egotistical actresses are.
Irene Dunne with Charles Boyer in the 1939 "Love Affair," first of three versions of the fabled love story.
I immediately made a follow up with Charles, "When Tomorrow Comes". Junie Allyson did the remake. Some very nice moments but it never came together quite like "Love Affair". Barbara O'Neill as his deranged wife just stole the scenes. She looked so dangerous. But I didn't care, the story needed some pep and she provided that.
I got my fourth Oscar nomination for "Love Affair." On Oscar night I didn't want to go - my poor little Terry up against Scarlett O'Hara? No contest. But I had to be a good sport. And Vivien (Leigh) deservedly won.
BAWDEN: How did "My Favorite Wife" (1940) come about?
DUNNE: Well, in those days sequels were not often done and if they were they bombed like "Son Of Kong". But people said Cary and I should continue the characters in "The Awful Truth" and that's exactly what Leo McCarey did. We were all attached to RKO by this time we couldn't use the original names but, let's face it, they were basically the same people. Only this time it was the story of Enoch Arden and I was Enoch - I'd been on a desert island for seven years with Randolph Scott. And I arrive home the day Cary had me declared legally dead and that frees him to marry Gail Patrick. Just as filming started Leo was seriously hurt in a traffic accident and the prognosis was not favorable at first. So Garson Kanin stepped in and we all tried to put on our brave faces and get on with it. My favorite scene had Ellen taking a shy, meek shoe clerk - played wonderfully by Chester Clute - to visit husband Cary and try to persuade him this was the man she'd been on the island with. The conclusion was so close to "The Awful Truth" I get them mixed up in my mind.
BAWDEN: Then came a third and final film with Grant - 1941's "Penny Serenade".
DUNNE: Back at Columbia. I went to a sneak preview and got into the theater after dark and heard a couple behind me say, "Oh, another Cary Grant, Irene Dunne comedy." Little did they know. By the half way point both were blubbering.Oh, it was a four hankie affair. I have a miscarriage in Japan, Cary has to cry when the judge tries to take away our adopted girl, then she dies. His crying scene was so magnificent I said, "Oh, he's going to win the Oscar." And he nearly did. He was also great that year in "Suspicion." But I told him he'd never win. He made everything seem spontaneous, so easy. But that is fine acting when people think you are playing yourself. I found comedy hardest, drama less so but what did I know? I never even got a nomination that year.
BAWDEN: And you never worked with Grant again.
DUNNE: It wasn't for want of trying. That was the last film in which he ever took second billing. And different ideas were submitted but we'd always be to busy. But it's strange. People thought of us as a team, you know. Around that time I was in Bullock's, getting a Christmas present for my husband and looking at dressing gowns and the sales lady said, "Oh, I don't think that would fit Mr. Grant" and I didn't have the heart to correct her. People thought of us as a team and we only made these three movies in four years and then we unfortunately moved on.
BAWDEN: Ralph Bellamy once told me in "Lady In A Jam" (1942) you lost your legendary cool.
DUNNE: Can't a girl have at least one nervous breakdown on a set? I'd done "Unfinished Business" (1941) with Greg LaCava and it had turned out half OK and I foolishly agreed to this one. He said he'd shoot it in the McCarey style-- i.e., there was no real script. We'd improvise. We shot in Phoenix and it was very hot. There was no air conditioning then. And I sweltered in my portable dressing room for 10 weeks as Greg waited for inspiration and it never came and finally I just threw things around and it turned to be a real disaster and Greg only made one more movie after that and it was five years later.
BAWDEN: You had trouble with Spencer Tracy on the set of "A Guy Named Joe" (1943).
DUNNE: He'd wanted Kate Hepburn for the part of the female flying ace, Dorinda. And (director) Vic Fleming had turned him down flat saying she wasn't all right for it. So when I showed up Spence was rude, brusque and even made a pass at me. Me! And Vic said he'd settle down but it got worse and I called up (studio head) Mr.(Louis B.) Mayer and laid down the law. I said I thought MGM was a professional place.
He arranged to saunter over right at the moment of my biggest scene and afterwards Mr. Mayer turned to Vic and said very loudly, "If anybody goes, it will not be Irene." And Spence got all teary eyed and instantly cleaned up his act. And he was very good, I can't think of another actor who could have pulled it all off. He started coming to my dressing room for tea and telling me about the plight of his deaf son John. And the picture was a huge success.
But Spence did one wonderful thing on the set. Van Johnson was injured badly in a traffic accident right outside the studio and ambulance from Culver City and L.A. battled over his crumpled body for the longest time before he got aid. MGM said they'd recast and Spence just refused to finish it without Van. When we finally did get to the concluding scenes I was already making "The White Cliffs Of Dover". Playing two different parts on the same day for weeks on end was terribly confusing. I'd always lived my parts. I was not at all in a happy mood that year.
With Spencer Tracy in "A Guy Named Joe"
BAWDEN: What did you think of "The White Cliffs Of Dover" (1944)?
Dunne: Well, Roddy McDowall still calls me "Mother" to this day. It was a reverie, not at all realistic. I played a young American girl on a trip to England who marries into the British aristocracy. The funny thing is I recently got a letter from the Queen Mother's secretary asking me to be on a committee to preserve the real white cliffs. And I didn't have the heart to write back that our cliffs were in California because the real ones somehow seemed a tad diminutive. But we couldn't call the picture the "White Cliffs Of California", could we?
So many of the British community were in this one: Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Sir C. Aubrey Smith. Everything was lavish, too lavish if you ask me. But it was so well received in both nations as a morale booster for our side. Mr. Mayer told me only one MGM actress would get the Oscar nomination that year because of the crowded field and it would have to be Greer Garson for "Mrs. Parkington."
BAWDEN: Actors always remember the parts the didn't get. What were some of the ones that got away?
DUNNE: Well, I had all but signed on the dotted line to make "Now, Voyager" (1942). Hall Wallis at Warners sent me a script and then somebody slipped a mimeographed copy to Bette Davis, who hollered so loudly they gave it to her. And then there was "Lady In The Dark" (1942), which the director Mitch Leisen said to me that I'd be perfect as Jenny, but Ginger Rogers had the first right of refusal and who would turn down a part like that? And I remember Leo McCarey phoned and said if Ingrid Bergman turned down the part of the Swedish nun in "The Bells Of St. Mary's" then I would get it. So I waited for quite a bit but Ingrid finally did it.
Of course I also got parts others didn't want. Greta Garbo was the first choice for "I Remember Mama" and she sent back a note to RKO: "No mamas and no murderesses." She'd also turned down "The Paradine Case" concurrently.
BAWDEN: I'm not sure why you left MGM after only two big hits?
DUNNE: Louis B. Mayer asked me to see him and said: "Irene, here's your next part." And he sort of threw the script across his big table and the title was "The Thin Man Goes Home." And I innocently asked "But what part is there for me?" And he said I'd be the new Nora Charles since Myrna Loy had already left the studio for war work. And I argued forcefully that the series was precisely a hit because of the chemistry between those big stars (Loy and William Powell). And I flatly refused and that was it, MGM stopped offering me scripts.
So I went to Columbia and did "Together Again" (1944). The title says it all - Charles Boyer and I were a team in the minds of movie fans. And the slight comedy about a lady major commissioning a sculptor to do a statue of her late husband was an unexpected hit.
Irene Dunne in two of her biggest hits of the 1940s. At left, with Rex Harrison in "Anna And The King Of Siam" (1946). At right, working hard in "I Remember Mama" (1948).
So Columbia bought "Over 21" (1945) for me. Ruth Gordon wrote it and starred on Broadway in it. My mistake was catching her on tour in L.A. and I aped her mannerisms and I was just awful. It just didn't jell and Alexander Knox wasn't adept at comedy. Cary Grant would have made it work. It was about an over-aged soldier and his wife who follows him to boot camp. So I thought this is the perfect moment to retire.
BAWDEN: Instead you did "Anna And The King Of Siam" (1946).
DUNNE: The script was just so unusual. I was a real life English governess - Anna Leonowens - in Siam and Rex Harrison came over from Britain and was excellent. We shot every scene on the back lot - one interior had a window with shots of Thailand back-projected. Rex Harrison had a seperate throne than the one Yul Brynner later used (in "The King And I," the musical remake). John Cromwell shot it very acutely, a few missteps and it could have turned out flat indeed.
Than can you imagine I'm reading The New York Times in 1949 and they're announcing a Broadway musical of it. I was mighty angry and phoned Oscar Hammerstein up on long distance and really gave it to him. "Hello? Oscar? You remember me, don't you? I toured for years in your Show Boat and made the movie and you thought I was just fine as Magnolia? Now this!"
But he explained Gertrude Lawrence had taken an option on the property and shopped it to him and Dick Rodgers as a star vehicle. So what could he do? I just don't think that she had the voice for that. But later Oscar offered me the road tour for a year and I turned him down because I had a husband and growing daughter. I wouldn't want to leave them alone for a year.
BAWDEN: What do you think of "Life With Father" (1947)?
DUNNE: A very good piece of Americana but not the great film it could have been. It had been running on Broadway since 1939 and the expectations were just too high. Bill Powell was signed first and I initally refused. A billing problem again. So Jack Warner offered to give me billing in the newspaper ads every other day. Oh, the vanity of actors! And I rather liked doing it. Michael Curtiz with his bad accent didn't know the first thing about the period but it somehow all came together.
Did you know Mary Pickford had made a test of it as Vinnie? She's a good friend but hadn't acted in 14 years and had no box office. Then Bette Davis made a test and Mike Curtiz said she hollered when he told her she was too strong. And we must have tested with dozens of little boys. I'd worked with Liz Taylor on "The White Cliffs Of Dover" and she was this teeny thing. Three years later she was blossoming into a real beauty - and she knew it!
Posters for Dunne's final film, "It Grows On Trees" (1952).
One anedote: we all trooped down to Perc Westmore's one Saturday afternoon - he was on Hollywood Boulevard - to get our hair dyed red. The process in those days was very strong and just as the color was being mixed in they turned off the water mains for repairs. To keep that dye in our hair - it mean we'd soon get bald and there already was stinging pain. In desperation they plopped jars of cold cream into our locks and we all rushed to our homes to wash it out. Bill Powell said he had to wear a hair piece after that.
BAWDEN: From "Father" you went to "I Remember Mama" (1948)?
DUNNE: (Director) George Stevens offered it to me after Garbo passed. I said I'd take Garbo's seconds any day because the part was so rich. I added some weight on my own - just a lot of tapioca pudding - and also there were a lot of padding.
We shot so much of it in San Francisco and the cast included Oscar Homolka, who got a supporting Oscar nomination. Barbara Bel Geddes was my teenaged daughter although she really was 28. I had a dialect instructor but I didn't want to go to heavy on that. The war had changed George. He told me he couldn't do comedies any longer. This one was a huge hit and I really thought I'd get the Oscar this time but Jane Wyman won it. I was nominated and lost five times becoming the Adlai Stevenson of the Oscar races.
BAWDEN: Next came you turn as Queen Victoria.
DUNNE: In "The Mudlark" (1950). My downfall. We thought we were doing something quite splendid. But the anecdote about a waif getting into Windsor Castle to see Queen Victoria -- well, it was too slight to hold interest. Fox shot it in Britain because the Labor government had frozen British currency. I put cotton batten in my cheeks to look like the old queen, I had latex on my throat and lines all over the place. It was not an Irene Dunne part, was it? Alec Guinness came on too strong as Prime Minister Disraeli. There was no balance in his portrait. Everything was scrupulously researched. Victoria had only spoken German until she was 18 so I had a very faint German accent. The British press were unkind in howling that an American was to play such a beloved English monarch. But Queen Victoria was three-quarters German I believe. It was the House of Hanover after all. Such an expensive production and it barely earned back its costs.
As Queen Victoria in "The Mudlark" (1950)
The business was changing. Again. My type of comedy was out, my type of drama was gone. I made "It Grows On Trees" (1952) and it was just terrible and went out on a double bill. The next year I took over as hostess of (television's) "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars" and I didn't have control as Loretta (Young) did of her show and so I moved on. I did a TV pilot of the film "Cheaper By The Dozen" in 1956 but it, thankfully, did not sell.
I never formally retired. That would have been presumptuous. But an awful lot of the girls my age soldiered on in bad vehicles. I'd do a TV half hour drama every year just to keep my hand in it. But I couldn't run around with an axe in my hand like Bette and Joan did to keep things going. The difference was I had a family and they didn't have one - only the all-mighty career.
And I did get movie offers. MGM wanted me to play Grace Kelly's mother in "The Swan" (1956), which ironically would be her last movie although nobody knew that. The part was choice but I'd have to settle for fourth billing and my husband said to forget that. "Go out number one," was his advice. Well, Jessie Landis finally took the part and was very funny. And then MGM wanted me as Leslie Caron's dotty aunt in "Gigi" (1958) but the subject matter was distasteful. The family was raising their precious to be a courtesan. If they'd offered me one great song I might have reconsidered.
The latest offer was to be in one of those "Airplane" movies - Universal said they'd donate my six figures to a Catholic charity but I didn't want to be stuck inside a crippled airplane for several months of shooting. But I still haven't retired. At least not from life.
Though Irene Dunne starred in her last feature film in 1952, she remained very active in charity work and work on behalf of the arts. She was appointed as an alternative United Nations delegate by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower and served on a statewide California arts commission during Ronald Reagan's years as governor there. She died in 1990 at age 91.