Her first stage production, a Louisville, Kentucky production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, came at the tender age of five, a debut that would quickly set the tone for a fabulous career. Today, Irene Dunne is remembered as an excellent actress with impeccable timing and an impressive list of leading men, including Cary Grant.
Born on December 20, 1898, in Louisville, Kentucky. Her father, a steamship inspector, and her mother, a pianist, prompted Irene into the arts. Following the death of her father when she was but 12, Irene moved with her family to the historic town of Madison, Indiana, to live with her grandparents. During the next several years, Irene studied voice and took piano lessons in town. She was also able to earn money singing in the Christ Episcopal Church choir on Sundays. After graduating from high school in 1916, she studied for a year at an Indianapolis conservatory because music remained her first love. Soon after, she accepted a teaching post as a music and art instructor in East Chicago, Indiana. She never made it to the school.
While on her way to East Chicago, she saw a newspaper ad in the Indianapolis Star and News for an annual scholarship contest run by the Chicago Music College. Irene won the contest, which enabled her to study there for a year. After that, she headed for New York City, the entertainment capital of the world. Her first goal in town was to add her name to the list at the Metropolitan Opera Company. Her audition went awry, and she was told that she was rejected due to her youth and inexperience. She did win the leading role in a road theater company which, in turn, was followed by numerous plays.
In 1928, Irene met and married a promising dentist, Francis Dennis Griffin. She would remain married to Dr. Griffin until his death in 1965, a length of time almost unheard of in Hollywood. Irene came to the notice of Hollywood when she performed in a play on the East Coast. By 1930, she was under contract to RKO. The first motion picture she appeared in was “Leathernecking” (1930), a debut that went almost unnoticed. In 1931, Irene appeared in “Cimmarron,” for which she was to be nominated for an Academy Award (she received four more nominations in her career).
Films such as “No Other Woman” (1933), and “Ann Vickers” (1933), established her as a star. She then teamed up with Cary Grant in “The Awful Truth” (1937), a screwball classic. She starred again with Grant in “My Favorite Wife” (1940) and “Penny Serenade” (1941). They became Hollywood’s team. She also appeared opposite Spencer Tracy in “A Guy Named Joe” (1943), remade by Steven Spielberg in 1989 as “Always.” But it was her role in the four-hankie weeper, “I Remember Mama” (1948) that cemented her as a Hollywood icon. Playing the role of a Norwegian mother who sacrifices all for love, she earned another Oscar® nomination, but again lost.
After that, she began to devote more of her time to charities and public works which she championed. Dunne was a staunch Republican and believed mightily that the private sector should help the needy and sick pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Dunne briefly appeared once again on screen in “It Grows on Trees” (1952). After that, she popped up infrequently on television in guest starring roles. In 1957, she was appointed by President Eisenhower as a special delegate to the United Nations during the 12th General Assembly.
The remainder of her life would be spent on civic causes, although she was also elected to Technicolor’s Board of Directors. She even donated $10,000 to the restoration of the town fountain in her girlhood home of Madison, Indiana in 1976, though she’d been absent since 1938. At the age of 91, Irene Dunne died of heart failure in Los Angeles.