What Have They Done To... Irene Dunne
She was, and is, a real lady.
And a great star. They
don't make them like her any more -
and her beauty today is still
unfaded – by Stephen Birmingham
What have they done to …
Enough tears were shed, according to an RKO Pictures press agent at the time, to fill all the swimming pools in Hollywood. The year was 1932 (a dolorous thing in itself), and the movie was "Back Street", based on Fannie Hurst's best-seller. Its stars were a man hardly anybody remembers now, John Boles, and a fledgling actress named Irene Dunne, who went on to become one of the most enduring of all Hollywood's “first ladies of the screen”. Back Street told the story of a woman who, with almost superhuman courage and nobility, accepted the back-street role of mistress to the man she loved, since he had a wife who would not divorce him. During the course of the film's two hours, Irene Dunne aged some thirty years. The studio's makeup department supplied her, bit by bit, with a crepy neck, a fallen chin, a Himalayan range of wrinkles. The pools of tears shed over the film, which broke the records of all previous record-breakers at the box office, were not so much collected over the bittersweetness of Miss Hurst's tale as over the spectacle of the slow disintegration of Irene Dunne's beauty, a beauty one film critic described as “indescribable.” And a Boston lady, somewhat past middle age, said recently, “I'll never forget her in that film. Well, that was over thirty years ago, and she must be an old woman now and probably looks just the way she did at the end of the picture. But the funny thing is, I feel as though I've aged right along with her.” She paused a moment and then added. “I hope she's happy, wherever she is.”
At a New York cocktail party the other day, when the talk turned to the days “when movies were really movies and stars were really stars,” and to “what ever happened to--“ Irene Dunne's name came up, and, instantly, everybody in the room had his or her favorite Irene Dunne movie. In the middle of this happy reminiscence, the host's sixteen-year-old daughter came into the room and, after listening to the conversation for a moment, asked, “Who is this Irene Dunne, anyway?” Silence fell. People scowled into their cocktail glasses, and one of the guests was heard to mutter, “We must be getting old.”
And yet, in a way, it has always been a question of “Who is Irene Dunne?” Even in her film-making heyday, she managed to lead a private life that was truly private and that seemed – by Hollywood
standards – astonishingly respectable. Leo McCarey, who directed many of her films, once said, “You can really call Irene Dunne the first lady of Hollywood, because she's the first real lady
Hollywood has ever seen.”
Even her film career followed a curious pattern. It was unusual in its length – as a reigning star, she overlapped the careers of Norma Shearer and Elizabeth Taylor – and also in its range. It started in 1930, with two inconspicuous and all-but-forgotten movies, "Leathernecking" and "Present Arms". Then, in 1931, came a starring role in the Academy Award-winning version of Edna Ferber's novel "Cimarron". As Sabra Cravat, wife of an Oklahoma pioneer, she was elected to Congress and made an acceptance speech that prompted the late Will Rogers, who was always anti-women-in-politics, to say, “If women like Irene Dunne would run for Congress, I'd vote for them.” Then came "Back Street", which was followed by an enormously successful succession of tearjerkers, in most of which she played the sorely wronged, long-suffering “other woman” and during which the price of her acting services soared to $30,000 a week. Then, in 1936, thoroughly and profitably typecast, she was asked by RKO to do a script called "Theodora Goes Wild", and overnight Irene Dunne found herself labeled “a deft, sophisticated comedienne.”
From "Theodora" on, Irene Dunne became known for her high-comedy roles in such just-a-wee-bit-racy films as "The Awful Truth" and "My Favorite Wife" with Cary Grant. And this is the way moviegoers who are now in their thirties and forties think of her today (while the older generation still chokes up over "Back Street"). Light comedy continued to be her specialty through "Over Twenty-One", "Life With Father"," Anna and the King of Siam",and "I Remember Mama".
Then, in the early 1950s, her career came to a standstill, and it was a strange sort of standstill, because it was not signaled by a crashing box-office failure, nor did her career stumble into the B-picture category. She is in the odd position of still being considered by all except teenagers as a great movie star. And yet, when anybody asks, “By the way, what has Irene Dunne done lately?,” nobody quite knows the answer.
If anything, President Eisenhower's 1957 appointment of Irene Dunne as an alternate delegate to the Twelfth General Assembly of the United Nations merely added to the confusion. As one woman said
at the time, “I could see Eleanor Roosevelt in that job. But Irene Dunne? It is the Irene Dunne, isn't it? The movie star?” The UN appointment – which she called, with characteristic wit, “my
first job” - lasted just a year. Once more, she seemed to dissolve into a kind of professional limbo.
The address of limbo, in Irene Dunne's case, is a number on North Faring Road, Los Angeles, a comfortable, nine-room house in the French Provincial style, where, at the front door, a doormat is stamped with the initial “G”, which says a good deal about what Irene Dunne has been doing lately. (If you telephone this house, the maid who answers will not say, “Irene Dunne's residence,” but, “The Griffins' house.”) Inside the house, which is airy and cool, the French Provincial motif is carried out in beiges, silvers, and golds, and through it all, a small black French poodle leaps and runs and yips. “His name is Sanka,” Sanka's mistress explained. “Frank and I named him that so he wouldn't keep us awake nights. I'm not quite sure whether he's lived up to the label.”
Anyone who expects that Irene Dunne, at 59, must have aged the way she was artfully made to age in Back Street is in for a distinct surprise. She has lightened her hair from red to a creamy blonde; but in every other way, she seems ageless. Her eyes are the same warm gray, and her face, which requires no make-up beyond a touch of pink lipstick, is still smooth, pall and luminous. Small-boned, she appears more diminutive than her fairly average five feet five, and dressed casually in slim silk slacks and a silk-jersey top, she displays a perfect sizeeight figure that any debutante might envy. She moves with a quick, alert, emphatic grace. If anything, the years have softened her beauty and made it appear more willowy and fragile, and yet, says a friend, “The older Irene gets, the sexier she looks – with that marvelous sexy, sassy walk,” Clearly, neither age nor infirmity has set in. Yet she has not made a movie since 1952. Why?
“I am sure producers must be getting terribly annoyed with me,” Irene Dunne, curled gracefully on a love seat in her library, said, “because lately I've turned down quite a few things. Most of
the parts I've been offered recently have been for Broadway plays. People keep asking me what sort of play I'm looking for. They say, “Just tell us the kind of part you have in mind.” The fact
is, I don't have any part in mind. All I know is that I'd like it to be a play that says something.”
“But I don't want to be considered retired from acting. I am not retired. Honestly, people think the darndest things about me. Ever since my United Nations work, for instance, they've been saying that I've gone into politics. The United Nations is a nonpolitical body. But during the Nixon campaign out here, I got letters from people who seemed to think I was practically his campaign manager. Honestly, all I did was vote for him!”
Changing the subject again, she pointed to a small semi-abstract painting on the wall and said, “Do you like that? My husband painted it. I think he has enormous talent.” Then, picking up a pair of photographs in a double silver frame, she said, “And these are my two grandchildren. The little boy, Mark, is five, and the little girl, Ann Marie, will be four tomorrow. We're having a party.”
For many years, Irene Dunne has had a reputation of being “hard on interviewers.” This does not mean that she is rude to the press; but she has been called “aloof.” She has never seemed to have much regard for personal publicity (informed of a McCall's article, she said, “Why would anybody want to read about me?”) One of the biggest problems for interviewers has been her habit of skipping from subject to subject, of leaving sentences unfinished and questions unanswered. She also has a quality, which can be charmingly feminine but frustrating to a journalist, of vagueness.
It is not just the press that finds her hard to pin down. She also perplexes her friends. Mildred Knopf, for example, a prominent Los Angeles hostess, author and wife of an MGM producer, has known Irene Dunne for nearly thirty years, but still, Mrs. Knopf says, “You never get really close to Irene. There's always something withheld.” To the questions Mrs. Knopf and Irene Dunne's other friends most frequently ask – Do you want to make another movie? Are you seriously looking for a Broadway part? - the answers are vague, inconclusive smiles, an aren't-you-sweet-to-care-about-me look, or a change of subject.
All this is even more surprising to people who worked with Irene Dunne during the early years of her career and who recall her as a woman of “terrifying ambition” and “enormous drive.” A character actress who played occasional supporting roles with the star says, “You never got to know her on the set, because whenever she wasn't in front of the camera, she was huddled off in a corner, eating crackers and milk and studying her lines.”
From the beginning, she was a woman who knew precisely what she wanted and who pursued her goals with single-minded purpose. What she wanted to be, from the beginning, was a star.
She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, of well-to-do parents. As a girl, she had what are usually called “all the advantages.” During her afternoons, she studied voice and piano under her mother,
an accomplished musician.
When Irene was eleven, her father died, and then she and her mother moved to Madison, Indiana. Irene continued her music lessons under private tutors. Though there was no need for her to work, young Irene
managed to pack a great deal of work and study into the next five years.
At the age of 17, she was given the lead in the road company of a show called – prophetically and by coincidence – "Irene". In the winter of 1927, she opened on Broadway as Diana in "Yours Truly". This was the winter she met Frank Griffin, a successful New York oral surgeon, and six months later, they were married.
In 1929, Flo Ziegfeld summoned her to his office and offered her the leading role of Magnolia in the road company of "Show Boat". As Magnolia, she was an instant success, and for 72 weeks she played to standing room only in almost every large city in the East. Hollywood beckoned – politely, at first; then wildly. She was 25 and “born.”
In a curious way, Irene Dunne's film career has reflected the course of her private life. Echoes of her personal struggles, ambitions, and hopes keep drifting back and forth across the make-believe lives she lived on celluloid. The years between 1930 and 1936, for example, when she was the much-put-upon, neglected, or done-wrong heroine of so many weepy dramas, she describes as “a lonely time.” During this period, she and her husband lived on opposite sides of the continent, he with his dental practice in New York and she with her work in Hollywood. This situation led to the customary rumors of estrangement, even though the two got together as often as they could. “She always had a deep respect for Frank's profession,” says a close friend of the Griffins, “just as he's always respected hers. It was a matter of practical necessity, during those years, that they be apart.”
In 1936, Griffin gave up his New York practice, joined his wife in California, and that was the year Irene Dunne made her debut in happy, madcap parts.
Then, in 1941, she made a film called "Penny Serenade", and reviewers described her as “perfectly cast.” "Penny Serenade" told the story of a childless couple who decide to adopt a baby. “I don't think I've ever felt as close to any picture,” Irene Dunne said. “It's very much the scheme of my personal life.” Five years earlier, she and her husband had adopted a year-old baby girl, whom they named Mary Frances and nicknamed Missy. Irene Dunne has made no other allusions, public or private, to the fact of her daughter's adoption. That adoption proceedings were under way was kept a secret from even the Griffins' closest friends until one day Irene made several telephone calls to say, “Come on over to my house. I want to show you something.” The something she had to show was the baby. “I'm superstitious,” she says, “about talking about good things until they happen.”
If some actresses seem to collapse, rather awkwardly, at the end of their careers, it is because acting, to them, is a self-consuming art. But Irene Dunne has for many years been building another dimension for herself – several other dimensions, in fact.
“I knew all along,” Irene says, “that acting was not everything there was.” Now she has moved into these dimensions, in which she operates quite happily.
One involves her community and welfare work. Her interest in this goes back to the days of World War II, and at home in Los Angeles, she began working for St. John’s Roman Catholic Hospital. With her husband, she established the Irene Dunne-Francis D. Griffin Foundation, which has the hospital as its beneficiary.
As a committeewoman, her friend Roz Russell describes her as a “fantastic organizer.” Her greatest talent as a fund raiser or committee chairman stems from a quality she always had on the screen – an ability to project instant warmth. Or, one might say, plain old feminine wiles. One Los Angeles businessman says, “She sat down with me for a few minutes, and before I knew it, I’d agree to contact ten other guys and ask them for a thousand dollars each for her hospital. I even think I said I’d give her a thousand dollars!”
President Eisenhower, obviously under her spell from the moment he met her, began his first letter to her: “My dear Irene – if I may presume to call you Irene.” While never as eloquent as her UN predecessor, Mrs. Roosevelt, she was most effective when she could champion her cause – the underfed, underprivileged, and disinherited of the earth – with individuals and at the committee level. A photograph from a Paris newspaper – which she keeps in her very slim personal scrapbook because the headline, “Une Star derrière Dulles,” amuses her – shows her leaning over the shoulder of the former Secretary of State and pointing to a sheaf of papers on his desk. “Doesn’t it look as though I were telling him exactly what to do?” she asks. (“Don’t let her fool you,” says Roz Russell. “She probably was.”)
Another dimension of her life is, of course, her family. Perhaps she is trying to make up now for the years when she and her husband were apart. In any case, she spends as much time with him as possible. Because golf was his favorite sport, she took it up, tackling it with the same energy as she tackled her film roles, until she became a scratch golfer and made two holes-in-one. When a recent heart illness required Griffin to give up the sport, Mrs. Griffin also gave it up.
Today, their favorite pastimes are walking with Sanka and reading aloud to each other. Griffin, who is several years older than his wife, lowers his voice when he speaks to her; he has always called her simply “Dearest”; she refers to him respectfully as “Doctor.” (It seems silly to call them ‘a cute couple,’” says a friend, “but that’s almost what they are. They’re like two little pixies together.”) The Griffins entertain seldom, and Irene Dunne’s movie friends complain that they “never see enough of Irene and Frank.” This is because, when they do entertain, their guests are not from the movie colony; they are Frank Griffin’s former golfing companions, Los Angeles businessmen, and their wives. Dinners are small, and sometimes after dinner “if anybody asks me to,” Irene will go to the piano and play, and, if anyone asks her to, she will sing, and she can still send pleasant shivers down the spines of her listeners with “Smoke gets in your eyes” and the other famous Kern song from the same show, “Lovely to look at.”
The Griffins’ daughter, Missy, now Mrs. Richard Shinnick, lives just twenty minutes away, in Beverly Hills. The Griffins and the Shinnicks drop in on each other often, with or without invitations. Like any other grandmother, Irene Dunne enjoys having either or both grandchildren deposited with her for an afternoon or a weekend, and one of her current assignments (self-imposed) is taking four-year-old Ann Marie for swimming lessons at the nearby Bel-Air Country Club.
Like most women, Irene Dunne is fond of good clothes. Unlike her friend Loretta Young, who is reported to keep “a working wardrobe” of 700 dresses, she buys expensive dresses in small quantities. Because she dislikes shopping for clothes in stores, designers, such as New York’s Mainbocher and California’s Jean-Louis, submit sketches to her, from which she selects “three or four good dresses a year.” A private passion is shoes. Though she does not own as many as 700 pairs, she frankly admits, “I have lots and lots and lots of shoes.”
When asked how she manages to keep her looks and petite figure, she invariably cries, “Oh, dear! Don’t ask me about my beauty secrets. I have no beauty secrets. I try to get lots of fresh air and plenty of rest – that’s all. I’ve never had a weight problem, though like most women, I occasionally have measurement problems. I have a few simple exercises – mostly stretching and bending – that I try to do every day. And I’m careful about what I eat – I avoid starches. But I’ve never had to diet, fortunately.”
Because she appears and talks and moves in a way so utterly feminine as to seem positively frou-frou, it comes as a slight surprise to learn that she is reported to have an extremely shrewd head for business. She may not, as has been said, be “one of the richest women in Los Angeles,” but she is known to have amassed a fortune well up into the millions. After Frank Griffin gave up his successful dental practice in the mid-thirties, he took over the considerable earnings; under his aegis, Irene Dunne is rumored to have acquired “half of downtown L.A.”
This is not true, either; but Griffin has invested his wife’s money solidly in real estate. At a party, a friend once asked, half jokingly, “Irene, how rich are you?” For a moment, she feigned shock. “Why, you know I don’t have anything about money,” she said. Then, with a smile, she added, “Actually, I know to the penny, but I’m not going to tell you!”
Though she has been called “overwhelmingly modest,” Irene Dunne is really very interested in herself. In many ways, she is as curious about Irene Dunne as her fans are. Sometimes – though not often – she watches herself in her old movies on television. She finds that she can watch herself quite dispassionately. “I can be objective about that girl,” she says. “I think she’s very nice. I’m sorry that her youth is not eternal – in a way. But only in a way.”
So much, she seems to say, for “that girl.”
She sometimes speaks of “the kind of woman I want to be.” And what is the woman she wants to be? “I’ve always been a religious person,” she said recently. “I think faith is terribly important – not that I’d ever want to be a professional Catholic or to try to sell my religion to anyone else. But I was thinking the other day about this man who has just been elected Pope, and about Saint Peter, who went out fishing and who, though he had fished all night and caught nothing, still let down his net again. That’s what all of us have to do, I think. We say we’re tired, but we have to go out and try and try and try – again and again! And that’s not religious faith. That’s just faith in – possibilities. I’m proud of what I’ve done. I wanted to be a good actress. I think I became one. I’m glad people liked the things I did. But I’ve only scratched the surface. I want to be the kind of woman who can grow and go on growing.”
The answer to her fans, then, who would love to see her again doing the famous shuffle dance she did in Show Boat, who would love to hear her sing “Smoke gets in your eyes” again, who would love to watch her verbally pull the rug out from under Cary Grant again, who would simply love to see her again is that maybe she will do another film someday, and maybe she will not. Maybe she’ll to Broadway; maybe she won’t.
With care, self-discipline, and years of work, she succeeded in building Irene Dunne, the movie star. But she is still carefully and slowly building Mrs. Francis Griffin, the human being. And in the meantime, since the latter is at present an unlimited engagement for her, fans who fear she may have suffered the fate she suffered in "Back Street may dry their eyes.
(McCall´s August, 1964)
Thanks to Janine, for typing this out for us!