Interview with John Kobal, 1972
In a prologue to the interview John Kobal describes his impression of Irene:
She was a grandmother in her seventies when I met her, still very handsome, looking like her old-young self, but not in any forced way. She was lined, she was tetchy as older people can be, especially ones who don't really live in the past but are often called upon to relive it for others, but hers wasn't a preserved beauty in any way. She did have her vanity, or better call it her magic, like Jimmy Stewart's enduring boyishness, Hedy Lamarr's hair or Liz Taylor's eyes. Her voice, which made her Jerome Kern's favorite screen interpreter and Cary Grant's most sympathetic partner, still twinkled. It made waiting to get to her worth all the difficulty.
Our conversation was mainly concerned with her musical work because I had written a book on musicals and had just seen High, Wide And Handsome the night before.
JK: Tell me why you don't like High, Wide And Handsome?
ID: I saw it on television here some weeks ago and I didn't think it was half as bad as I remembered it. It wasn't a happy film. It was very costly. Mamoulian was a very artistic director and I'd have to ride back and forth to Chino, California, where in January we'd wait for a cloud formation. The time it took! It couldn't happen today - we were way over budget and there'd be wrangles with the studio. It was an uncomfortable film to make with the location work. Also, I lost my mother in the middle of it, which was a shattering shock to me. I think I had two day off and had to go right back into making the film.
You know, when people ask what's your favorite film, I guess you should say the one that made the most money. But you never do. I remember Love Affair was made around Christmas time and we had a huge tree in the studio and everyone exchanged gifts and it was lovely. I guess that was my favorite film. But High, Wide And Handsome was physically a difficult film.
JK: Is it typical for you to relate your enjoyment of a film as a finished product to how you felt at the time?
ID: I think I always remember the flavor of working on a film. Because this was a big-budget film, it had the full treatment, a premiere at the Cathay Circle. I went that night and sat directly in front of Helen Hayes. I didn't like myself in that film, and all the time I was conscious of Helen Hayes breathing down my neck. This was one of my earlier films and I wasn't used to big premieres.
When I saw it the other night, I thought, if you capsulized it, that it was the story of the opening of the West with an oil pipeline, and it wasn't bad at all - it really wasn't bad. I thought it was a little corny, but it made sense. As a matter of fact, the theme had more significance now than I remember it having - it was lost on me somehow amongst the circus goings-on.
The male lead was suppossed to be Cary Cooper. But Randy Scott was so much better than I remember him being.
I also wasn't mad about Joy Of Living. Jerome Kern wrote a song for me called "You Couldn't Be Cuter." But the thing I'm proudest of is a song he wrote especially for me which became very popular - a thing from Roberta called "Lovely To Look At." Roberta was a stage play and "Lovely To Look At" wasn't in the original score.
To show how your mind can play tricks, I got so nervous over the song because I knew I'd have to be lovely to look at walking down the staircase singing the song. I got no sleep the night before, and when I went in the next morning, the cameraman told the director, "I'm not going to shoot her today. That's all there is to it. She'll have to go home to sleep." We waited for a day or two, I rested up, and then we shot it. I think that song has been used in more fashion shows than any other song ever written.
JK: As a singer, when did you first cross paths with Kern?
ID: Show Boat, I suppose. I don't recall him having come on tour. Oscar Hammerstein was in evidence, but not Kern so much. I became acquainted with Kern after I came to California. He'd built a house and was much more interested in my home than in the music. He used to come up with his measuring stick - he was interested in the kind of flagstone I had on my patio. He wasn't a very great pianist - but better than Irving Berlin, I'd say. I remember when I went to sing for Kern some years ago, I couldn't believe it. You know, a singer with a good accompanist is twice as good, but he was almost one finger. I couldn't have been more surprised.
JK: Was Kern very dependent on his lyricist?
ID: I have no way of knowing that. I'm sure the depended on each other. Have you noticed that in all the years Kern was writing he really worked with very few lyricists? Once he found someone compatible, he didn't worry.
Kern wrote a song specifically for me in two films, but of course he didn't come to me about it while he was writing. They didn't work like that, it's a closed corporation.
JK: Did Kern ever say why he liked the way you sang?
ID: I can't remember... he wasn't a very loquacious person. He was very down-to-earth and well liked. He had close friends who absolutely adored him. But I didn't feel very close to Jerry. Nor Oscar Hammerstein, really, although you can tell from his lyrics what a warm, wonderful man he was. Had we lived closer together, I would have hoped we would have become closer friends. I never asked Kern how he wanted me to sing a song, but he'd be very free to tell me exactly what he wanted. He didn't look or act like a great composer. They never do. Kern looked like a professor, really.
JK: I suppose movie stars are the only artists who have to look like what they are suppossed to be.
ID: Yes, but it's very shattering to a lot of people when they find stars not shaping up to their idea to them. I remember the night when I was out in California, I went to a restaurant and saw Hedy Lamarr eating steak tartare - which I've since eaten and liked very much. But here she was sitting in front of this heap of raw meat. It was revolting to me. I couldn't see that such a beautiful human being could eat raw meat.
JK: Was it a conscious effort or accidental that all your musicals were done by Jerome Kern?
ID: I had nothing to do with it. But there were not too many important musicals - like Show Boat, Roberta or Sweet Adeline - around at the time. And they all happened to be Kern's. It was a sort of sequence of normal events after I'd taken over the lead at the end of Show Boat - and there was only one Show Boat company then; people don't realize that because since there have been so many road companies. There was only one company and we had over 100 Negroes in the cast, so it was a difficult company to travel with. We went to Chicago, Boston, and played one other place - that's all. I still have the telegram Ziegfeld sent me after I took over the lead. You know, he'd never come backstage and see you, but instead he'd send reams in telegrams. He said he couldn't remember when he had a more enjoyable evening at the theater.
But anyway, to get back to Kern, after we'd done the road show of Show Boat, RKO had got Cimarron, which was written by Edna Ferber, the same person who wrote Show Boat, and, having been the heroine in Show Boat, it was natural for the head of the studio to offer me a contract to come to RKO and play the heroine in Cimarron. In between there was a little film that didn't quite make it: Leathernecking. I always like to think that Cimarron was released before that, so I can say my first picture to be released was Cimarron! I wonder what ever happened to that other film!
JK: Let me ask you about the film of Show Boat.
ID: James Whale wasn't the right director. I really shouldn't say that, but to me the picture didn't come off as well as the stage play. There were lots of inter-polations that we didn't need at all, and I think the ending was stupid. It's so easy to attach blame to a man one feels was miscast as director, so perhaps I shouldn't, but, you see, he was more interested in atmosphere and lighting and he knew so little about that life. I could have put my foot down about it, but there would have been no reason to do so because we had so many of the original people that you could only expect the best. I knew the whole thing backwards. No, you see, I could have put my foot down at the contract stage, but once the camera started turning, I was an angel on the set. No, I never cared for Show Boat (the film), but I thought the stage production was one of the best things. The score was marvelous, but even the book could have stood up on its own.
You often wonder why a film misses or is a smash. I think Roberta turned out the most how I envisaged it. I saw it a few weeks ago, and though the soundtrack has deteriorated, and though the story is really inane and silly (I didn't realize it at the time), the entertainment value is so good. Astaire danced beautifully with Rogers, the clothes were magnificent - it was an evening of entertainment and what more could one ask? Today people are getting so involved with problems there's no entertainment anymore, it's all presenting problems. My grandchildren were here and I was looking through the papers at ads for movies and they were all marked R (Restricted). So, really, forget it! They're not going to those movies, they're better off down the beach.
JK: In those musicals, were the songs recorded after the shooting or consecutively with it?
ID: Most of my numbers were dubbed, and I pride myself at that. First you record the number, then you shoot the scene and sing along to the recording. It´s remarkable how you can do it. You can´t really do it at the set because the sound engineers aren´t happy with the result.
JK: Since your musicals were so successful, why didn´t you do more of them?
ID: I´d love to have done that. I don´t know, I guess I was just busy doing other things. I never searched for them and I never felt they more successful than my other films or more satisfying. I loved doing them, but I can´t say they were more successful than the things I did with Grant. It´s mechanical and dubbed and the songs don´t weave the same spell on you as they do before a live audience. Lerner and Loewe asked me to do something. But no, I´m afraid I´m not much of a gambler and I liked the things I was doing.
JK: Had you stayed at one studio, once your image was established by 1935 - do you think that studio might have done a Jeanette McDonald with you and developed one aspect of you?
ID: Well, remember, when I came out here, there were signs up outside cinemas saying, "This is NOT a musical." Warners, I think it was, had done so many cheap musicals that they´d got a bad name. Anyway, it was no time to make a musical! My great love was, of course, music - but after Cimarron, which won the Academy Award, I was quite content. After all, Back Street was successful too and I began to become known as dramatic actress as well.
Of course, when I was studying at Chicago Musical College, I wanted to be in opera. Then, when I got to New York and got to know some opera stars, I realized I didn´t have quite the equipment to withstand all the rigors of grand opera. But I did work quite a bit in opera: both Stingaree and The Great Lover have operatic sequences. There was a very pretty song in Stingaree, I remember. But the song I´m know for...if I walk in someplace that they know me, they play "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."
JK: You excelled in musicals, were superb in all sort of comedies and also very highly effective in drama. Have you a preference?
ID: I don´t think so. I suppose the comedies I made were as succesful as anything else, but comedy was always very easy for me - and it´s not as satisfying to me as a dramatic role. I think you give more of yourself in a dramatic role. I was talking to Cary Grant the other day and he said of all the people I´d worked with, I had the most perfect timing in comedy. Now, I don´t think that´s something you acquire. Therefore comedy was easy for me and not as satisfying as a dramatic role. It´s something like having a musical ear.
JK: How soon were you aware of what Irene Dunne meant to people going to the box office? When you went independent, you selected your parts very carefully and your career lasted longer than most other people´s.
ID: Well, I made a terrible mistake with a film called It Grows On Trees. I thought it was a little whimsical sort of fantasy and would be accepted as such. I turned out just a dull thud. Had it been handled by another director - someone with a light hand - it could have been amusing. But as regards getting an idea of my image, I think I was accepted in romance. People expected that of me. Back Street was a very, very popular picture with women: the number of letters I got from women who were living on the back street of some man´s life and felt that I knew all the answers! Sometimes they´d sign the letters, but more often not. They just wanted to have a chat with me. Then I was fortunate to have attractive leading men. Yes, I think it was romance. I still say today that´s the greatest thing you can have on the screen.
JK: Were you businesslike in the handling of your career? The roles you selected, etc.?
ID: I had an excellent manager, Charles Feldman, and he and I would sit in this room and argue about which pictures to do with what directors. I had only one clause in my contract and I always had it. That was an okay on the director. I always felt that if the director was good, the everything else would fall in the proper place. Perhaps that's why my batting average was as good as it was.
They felt I made a mistake playing Queen Victoria in The Mudlark. I know it was a screen departure for me, but it's always nice to get away from routine, and every actor likes to play a character role. It's the public that may not like it. The makeup was very difficult for Queen Victoria and I don't think I'd ever go through that again. They had to sent a makeup man to England and we had a very thin mask that connected below the eyes and went down on either side of the face - so my eyes, nose and mouth were mine. Then it fastened on the back. But it could only be used once - every day there was a new one. It was hard on the face!
JK: I felt that within the range you had selected for yourself - the decent, average person - there was incredible flexibility.
ID: I studied a character very hard. If they gave me dialogue on the set, I'd always ask to be excused for five or ten minutes so's I could find out why I way saying what I had to say, what relation it had to the character, what she was thinking while she said it. As a result, the performance looks natural and easy and nobody realizes the amount of effort you've put in. That can be a disadvantage, and that's why I was so pleased at the Academy Award nominations.
You see, I was never flamboyant in a part, or eccentric, and that's the sort of performance that tends to catch the eye. Not that I'd stay awake nights worrying about it: I was always happy to just get the Academy Award nominations - which happened five times. But I was running against actresses like Bette Davis, who, as you know, was all over the lot in those days - and tremendous, I thought. But, boy, you knew she was an actress! I never went in for that because I was never one for broad gestures - nor great detail either - and I could never have done that. I dare say I was never offered a Jezebel or maniac part because they didn't see me that way.
I'm still offered roles, but I think you tear yourself apart like that. There are other things in life. I think for an old person who's had the success I have to start playing second- or third-rate parts ... I just wouldn't like that.
(excerpt from John Kobal "People Will Talk")