Today I seek out Irene Dunne in the press from the end of the 1910's through "Irene" on stage and off to Hollywood where I do my best not to be sidetracked by talk of "Babes in Toyland" in order to report on "Cimarron."
Just a brief mention to start things off, but that mention comes way back in 1918 when the Indianapolis Star reports on the monthly program for the Meridian Union meeting. It was reported that after the opening devotional topic, "Men Ought Always to Pray," that, "There were vocal solos by Miss Irene Dunne accompanyed by Miss Mary Brown of the Conservatory of Music."A December 1919 Chicago Star article reports on a more impressive sounding benefit for the National Guard:
Aaron Ascher, pianist, and Miss Irene Dunne, soprano, have tendered their services to the Ever Ready Eleventh regiment, Illinois National guard, and a concert has been arranged to be given at the Chicago armory this evening. The program announces that the performers "have tendered their services to the officers and enlisted members, as a tribute for the wonderful service the regiment has done for the state of Illinois and government during the most trying times.
Irene A Hit
The hit musical Irene opened at the Vanderbilt Theatre on Broadway in November 1919 and ran for 675 performances there over the next couple of years. Edith Day originally played the lead, Irene O'Dare, with others taking over the part during the show's long run. The final Irene was our Irene, Irene Dunne, who finished up on Broadway and continued in the starring role as the show went out on tour.
Irene Dunne was a big success when Irene, "which has out-lived all other productions on Broadway," hit Findlay, Ohio in October 1921:
Irene Dunne, of the Broadway company, which recently closed its season, played the leading role of Irene O'Dare. From the moment she appeared until the final drop of the curtain, she was the big favorite. Her singing, dancing and acting was of the talent that seldom reaches the smaller circuits.
Another cast member of interest in the touring company of Irene was Busby Berkeley as Madame Lucy, credited in this review as being "the source of much laughter."
As Irene made its way to the Luna Theatre in Logansport, Indiana in March 1922, the Pharos Tribune reported on the star of the show, who had grown up in Indiana:
Irene Dunne, who takes the title role in the smart musical comedy "Irene" coming to the Luna next Thursday, is an Indiana girl. She is the daughter of the late Gen. J.J. Dunne who served during the World War. Miss Dunne is a noted vocalist, being the proud possessor of a gold trophy awarded to her at the Dr. Zeigfeld College in Chicago in 1920. There were 150 contestants who appeared before a committee of judges composed of John McCormack, John Stock, Ysaye and Lavitski, members of the Chicago Grand Opera Company. In making presentation speech Mr. McCormack complimented Miss Dunne on her voice saying that it was of a volume seldom found in one so young.
After Irene had made its pass press coverage for Irene Dunne dwindles until the time of the national tour of Show Boat. She popped up in the press every so often but wasn't treated as substantially as she had been for Irene until 1930. There's a fantastic chronology of Dunne's 1920's theater appearances on The Irene Dunne Site.
Old Gold and RKO
Irene made the rounds in the papers side-by-side with illustrator John Held, Jr. in May 1930 as they were set as the co-starring duo on CBS radio's Old Gold-Paul Whiteman hour.
"Babes in Toyland," Victor Herbert's musical fantasy, will be produced by RKO, with Irene Dunne, New York musical comedy star in the leading part. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey will be the featured comedians.
Yes, that Babes in Toyland/ The one later adapted for the screen with Laurel and Hardy.
Here's a great article about Herbert's Babes in Toyland from the turn of the century through Laurel and Hardy.
Wheeler and Woolsey would work with Everett Marshall, but not Irene Dunne, in Dixiana, with Bebe Daniels in the starring role. Meanwhile Irene would make her debut in RKO's Leathernecking (1930).
On a similar note, Film Daily, who reports Irene Dunne's signing with RKO in their April 18, 1930 edition, soon states that Dunne and Marshall would appear together in Heart of the Rockies.
A Quick Breakthrough
Irene Dunne was in fact one of the final cast members to be announced on Cimarron, which Film Daily consistently reported as one of three films RKO planned on shooting at the same time: Babes in Toyland being one of the others!
"Cimarron," incidentally, will introduce to the fans Irene Dunne in her first important dramatic role. The star of Ziegfeld's "Showboat" ... has played in one feature comedy, but she won over 50 other actresses the role of Sabra in "Cimarron."
As Sabra, like Dix, goes from youth to old in the course of the picture, an actress was needed who not only could look both young and aged, but could assume the speech of an old woman.
And that was exactly what Irene had been doing in "Showboat," another Ferber romance which covers a period of a lifetime!
Final note on Babes in Toyland: Film Daily reports that Luther Reed is assigned to direct upon completion of Dixiana (starring Everett Marshall, you may remember), but the project receives its final mention in the publication on August 27, 1930.
(Perhaps Dunne's being recast in Cimarron had something to do with the death of Babes in Toyland at RKO? I don't know, but the order of the notices pushed my mind in that direction.)
Cimarron was a hit and won three Academy Awards including Best Picture. Among the seven total nominations for the film were Irene Dunne for Best Actress in a Leading Role, an award which went to Marie Dressler for Min and Bill that year.
Cimarron was the first of five Academy Award nominations for Irene Dunne, but sadly she never emerged a winner. She also garnered nominations for Theodora Goes Wild (1936); The Awful Truth (1937); Love Affair (1939); and probably her best opportunity, I Remember Mama (1948), when the 1949 Award went to Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (1948).
After back to back successes in Cimarron and Consolation Marriage for RKO and, of course, Show Boat only on stage at this point, The Montreal Gazette wrote that it was the actresses' fate "to be spoken of not simply as Irene Dunne, but as the Irene Dunne of the 'Such-sand-such fame.'"
When asked about this in 1931 Irene provided this nice quote with which we'll finish up this peek back in time:
"I suppose," she says, "it is because I have had the good fortune to be associated with big pictures and shows that they overshadow just plain Irene Dunne. Of course I like that; I'd like nothing better if it were possible that to have people remember me first by the names of the characters I have played than by my own name.
- Artman, Ada Adelia. "W.C.T.U. Calendar" Indianapolis Star 16 Mar 1918: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 23 Aug 2012.
- "Benefit Concert" Chicago Star Publications 11 dec 1919: 4. Newspaper Archive. Web. 23 Aug 2012.
- Coons, Robbin. "In Hollywood." Havre Daily News 13 Dec 1930: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 24 Aug 2012.
- The Film Daily Vol. 51-42 (Jan-May 1930). Internet Archive. Web. 24 Aug 2012.
- "Irene Dunne, John Held, Jr. on Paul Whiteman Hour." Burlington Hawk Eye 4 May 1930: 53. NewspaperArchive. Web. 24 Aug 2012.
- "'Irene' Makes Big Hit Here. " Findlay Morning Republican 26 Oct 1921: 5. NewspaperArchive. Web. 23 Aug 2012.
- "Known By Characters." The Montreal Gazette 5 Dec 1931: 10. GoogleNews. Web. 24 Aug 2012.
- Movie Man. "Around the Movies." Kingston Gleaner 14 Jun 1930: 72. NewspaperArchive. Web. 24 Aug 2012.
- "The Star of 'Irene' Coming to Luna Thursday" Logansport Pharos Tribune. 18 Mar 1922: . NewspaperArchive. Web. 23 Aug 2012.
TCM Summer Under the Stars 2012
Friday, August 24 - Irene Dunne - TCM Summer Under the Stars
- 6:00 am - Symphony of Six Million (1932) starring Irene Dunne, Ricardo Cortez, Gregory Ratoff
- 8:00 am - Bachelor Apartment (1931) starring Irene Dunne, Lowell Sherman, Mae Murray
- 9:30 am - The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933) starring Irene Dunne, Lionel Atwill, Phillips Holmes
- 11:00 am - The White Cliffs of Dover (1944) starring Irene Dunne, Van Johnson, Roddy McDowall
- 1:15 pm - Consolation Marriage (1931) starring Irene Dunne, Pat O'Brien, Myrna Loy
- 2:45 pm - Theodora Goes Wild (1936) starring Irene Dunne, Melvyn Douglas, Thomas Mitchell
- 4:30 pm - Together Again (1944) starring Irene Dunne, Charles Boyer, Charles Coburn
- 6:15 pm - My Favorite Wife (1940) starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott
- 8:00 pm - The Awful Truth (1937) starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Ralph Bellamy
- 9:45 pm - A Guy Named Joe (1943) starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Van Johnson
- 12:00 am - Life With Father (1947) starring William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor
- 2:15 am - Show Boat (1936) starring Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Helen Morgan
- 4:15 am - Never a Dull Moment (1950) starring Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray, William Demerest