We're referring to the wonderful Irene Dunne -- and if you live in the U.S. and have Turner Classic Movies on your cable system, you'll be able to see lots of her during December. She's TCM's star of the month, and beginning tonight and for three subsequent Thursdays, you'll be able to see a wide array of her films.
Dunne made as much a mark on the screwball comedy as Lombard, Claudette Colbert or any other actress of her time. And yet, she almost never became involved with the genre, as she tried in 1936 to get out of a comedy assignment, in her first movie after signing with Columbia. But when the studio put her on suspension, she relented and made the film..."Theodora Goes Wild," which became a huge hit and changed her career path forever.
The Kentucky-born, but Indiana-raised Dunne had a dramatic and musical background. But perhaps another reason for her reluctance to make comedies was age; she may have perceived the genre as a young actress' game. Dunne was born in December 1898 -- nearly three years before Colbert, seven before Myrna Loy, nine before Barbara Stanwyck and a decade before Lombard. She was nearing age 38 when "Theodora" was released in November 1936.
Dunne made her first film in 1930; in her next, the western epic "Cimarron," she was nominated for an Oscar. She didn't win, but the film did for best picture (it remains one of the more obscure winners in that category). After that, she settled into an array of dramatic roles, with hits such as "Consolation Marriage," "Back Street" and "Magnificent Obsession." Occasionally, she got to sing on screen, and even appeared with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their 1935 musical "Roberta." (The following year, she was in another Jerome Kern classic, "Show Boat.")
In 1937, Dunne worked with Cary Grant for the first time, and "The Awful Truth," still one of the all-time great screwball comedies, propelled Grant to first-tier stardom. (The story was adapted for radio many times; Lombard even made a version in 1940.) They later teamed for another comedy in 1940, "My Favorite Wife," directed by Garson Kanin, and did an about-face in 1941 with the weeper "Penny Serenade." She made the original "Love Affair" with Charles Boyer in 1939 and continued to work throughout the forties, including a pair of period pieces, "Life With Father" with William Powell and "I Remember Mama," but retired from films in 1952 (she occasionally appeared on television over the next decade). She died in September 1990.
Dunne acted in two films Lombard initially had interest in -- "Invitation To Happiness" (1939), a drama with Fred MacMurray, and "Unfinished Business" (1941), a comedy with Robert Montgomery directed by Gregory La Cava of "My Man Godfrey" fame.
Here are the films TCM plans to show (all times Eastern):
Dec. 6 has six pre-Code Dunne films...
8 p.m. "This Man Is Mine" (1934) -- this was actually on a "to be boycotted" list by the Catholic diocese of Detroit...ironic because Dunne was a devout Catholic.
9:30 p.m. "The Secret Of Madame Blanche" (1933) -- co-starring Lionel Atwill.
11 p.m. "No Other Woman" (1933) -- with Charles Bickford and J. Carrol Naish.
12:15 a.m. "Ann Vickers" (1933) -- directed by John Cromwell ("Made For Each Other," "In Name Only")
1:45 a.m. "Thirteen Women" (1932) -- with Loy in one of her later Asian vamp roles, and Peg Entwhistle (the starlet who committed suicide from the "HOLLYWOODLAND" sign)
3 a.m. "Symphony Of Six Million" (1932) -- with Ricardo Cortez, directed by La Cava.
Dec. 13 focuses on the musical Dunne:
8 p.m. "Stingaree" (1934) -- Dunne plays a kidnapped Australian opera singer (really), in a film that only returned to public ciruclation earlier this year.
9:30 p.m. "Roberta" (1935) -- with Astaire and Rogers.
11:30 p.m. "Show Boat" (1936) -- with Allan Jones, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson. Incidentally, Dunne's father inspected steamboats.
1:30 a.m. "Sweet Adeline" (1935) -- Dunne portrays an 1890s waitress who becomes a star.
3 a.m. "If I Were Free" (1934) -- with Clive Brook and Nils Asther.
4:15 a.m. "The Great Lover" (1931) -- with Adolphe Menjou as an opera star and Dunne as his protegee.
Dec. 20 (Dunne's birthday) looks at her comedic skills:
8 p.m. "Over 21" (1945) -- Dunne plays the wife of an editor. With Alexander Knox and Charles Coburn.
10 p.m. "Theodora Goes Wild" (1936) -- like Lombard, Dunne was nominated for a best actress Oscar...and like Lombard, she lost (to Luise Rainer).
11:45 p.m. "The Awful Truth" (1937) -- one scene stars the same terrier who played Asta in the "Thin Man" films and was also in "Bringing Up Baby" and "Topper Takes A Trip."
1:30 a.m. "Joy Of Living" (1938) -- co-stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Lucille Ball.
3:15 a.m. "My Favorite Wife" (1940) -- yet another takeoff of the Enoch Arden tale.
Dec. 27 examines the dramatic Dunne:
8 p.m. "I Remember Mama" (1948) -- Dunne's the "mama," a Norwegian immigrant in pre-earthquake San Francisco. Directed by George Stevens ("Vigil In The Night").
10:30 p.m. "The White Cliffs Of Dover" (1944) -- the second, and lesser-known, of two wartime films she made with Van Johnson.
12:45 a.m. "A Guy Named Joe" (1943) -- here's the first, with Spencer Tracy as well.
3 a.m. "Penny Serenade" (1941) -- a heartbreaker with Grant as co-star and Stevens as director.
Incidentally, if you read James Harvey's "Romantic Comedy In Hollywood: From Lubitsch To Sturges," one of the more indispensable books on the genre, he includes a good interview with Dunne that he conducted in the mid-eighties. A reserved, low-key type off-screen, Dunne occasionally falls away from film buffs' memories...but she's always worth rediscovering.