Magazine article USA TODAY

I'm Still in Love with Irene Dunne. (Reel World)

Magazine article USA TODAY

I'm Still in Love with Irene Dunne. (Reel World)

Article excerpt

THIS FALL, I have a biography coming out on my favorite actress--Irene Dunne (1898-1990). Not surprisingly, a large number of my best-remembered movies star Dunne. A complete list would necessitate hiring a husky stenographer. Suffice it to say, I would be especially happy to join her in the screwball world of "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936), "The Awful Truth" (1937), or "My Favorite Wife" (1940), and never come back, echoing novelist Michael Chabon's comment that movie lovers climb "into a movie as into a time machine ora bottle of whiskey and set the dial for 'never come back.'"

Here was a heroine whose wackiness was a garment she wore only in the most-comically desperate of situations, winning most of her points with practical wisdom and drop-dead beauty. Indeed, while her image, on screen and off, was forever intertwined with being "The First Lady of Hollywood," she had a sexiness about her that was probably predicated, in part, by time machine fantasies about her losing that ladylike status.

In fact, one would not even have to resort to fantasy. Film historian Maria Dibattista reminds us, in her 2001 celebration, Fast-Talking Dames, that the normally ever-so-proper Dunne is the "only comic actress working under the strictures of the Production [censorship] Code who actually ends two of her comedies ["The Awful Truth" and "My Favorite Wife"] under the covers, enticing her chosen mate [Cary Grant] into her bed under the guise of keeping him at bay." Although she excelled in numerous genres, including musicals (such as 1936's "Show Boat"), today's audience still most associates the actress with sexy screwball comedy.

The character link which connected her many roles was an ability to endure. Whether this involved a marriage on the farcical rocks, a la "The Awful Truth," or her excursion into Western melodrama, in "Cimarron" (1931), the viewer had faith that Dunne would carry the day with style, grace, and a sense of humor. Comedy was her forte, on and off the screen. Indeed, Dunne often used "funny" to find a character. For example, when the actress religiously worked on her dialect for the populist gem "I Remember Mama" (1948), she honed it with humor. "The real way to learn an accent is to read jokes," she said. "When you're reading a joke, you forget that you're trying to learn something, and the dialect comes naturally." Consequently, to view Dunne in a classic film is to want to know her, even to be like her.

For instance, I am reminded of a brief bit from her celebrated romantic comedy "Love Affair" (1939) that also manages to incorporate the actress' love of baseball. The scene in question finds playboy Charles Boyer reading a telegram on the deck of an ocean liner when a gust of wind blows it through an open porthole. A passing Dunne picks up the communication and starts reading, only to be interrupted by Boyer, requesting its return. When she asks for verification, he repeats the gist of what is a romantic note: "Remembering a warm beautiful night and ... you." While an embarrassed Boyer then gets the telegram back, a suddenly attentive Dunne (with an endearing cheekiness) asks, "It was alright, huh?" Abruptly, she disappears from her side of the porthole, then briefly returns with some signature silliness: "Do you think it'll [sex] ever take the place of baseball? …

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