Best known for her roles opposite Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) and Penny Serenade (1941).
The Stolen Jools
The Great Lover
Symphony of Six Million
No Other Woman
The Secret of Madame Blanche
The Silver Cord
If I Were Free
This Man Is Mine
The Age of Innocence
Theodora Goes Wild
High, Wide, and Handsome
Joy of Living
Invitation to Happiness
When Tomorrow Comes
Lady in a Jam
Show Business at War
The White Cliffs of Dover
Never a Dull Moment
You Can Change the World
It Grows on Trees
When we have learned to love our neighbor, not just ourselves, no matter where we come from, then America will be perfect. ~ Irene Dunne
Irene Dunne was born December 20, 1898, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Joseph John Dunn (1863–1913), a steamboat inspector for the United States government, and Adelaide Henry (1871–1936), a concert pianist/music teacher from Newport, Kentucky.
Following her father’s death, Irene, her mother, and her younger brother Charles moved to her mother’s hometown of Madison, Indiana. Dunne’s mother taught her to play the piano as a very small girl. Nicknamed “Dunnie”, she took piano and voice lessons, sang in local churches and high school plays before her graduation in 1916.
Dunne earned a diploma to teach art, but took a chance on a contest and won a prestigious scholarship to the Chicago Musical College, where she graduated in 1926. With a soprano voice, she had hopes of becoming an opera singer, but did not pass the audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company.
Irene, after adding an “e” to her surname, turned to musical theater. She toured several provincial cities in 1921–22 playing the lead role in the popular play “Irene”, before making her Broadway debut in 1922 in Zelda Sears’s The Clinging Vine. The following year, Dunne played a season of light opera in Atlanta, Georgia.
On July 16, 1927, Dunne married Francis Griffin, a New York dentist, whom she had met in 1924 at a supper dance in New York. Dunne later moved to Hollywood with her mother and brother and maintained a long-distance marriage with her husband in New York until he joined her in California in 1936.
in 1929. She signed a contract with RKO and appeared in her first movie, Leathernecking (1930), a film version of the musical Present Arms. Already in her thirties when she made her first film, she would be in competition with younger actresses for roles, and found it advantageous to evade questions that would reveal her age. Her publicists encouraged the belief that she was born in 1901 or 1904, and the former is the date engraved on her tombstone.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Dunne blossomed into a popular screen heroine in movies such as the original Back Street (1932) and the original Magnificent Obsession (1935) and re-created her role as Magnolia in Show Boat (1936), directed by James Whale. Love Affair (1939) is the first of three films she made opposite Charles Boyer. She starred, and sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film version of the musical Roberta (1935).
Dunne was apprehensive about attempting her first comedy role, as the title character in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), but discovered that she enjoyed it. She turned out to possess an aptitude for comedy, with a flair for combining the elegant and the madcap, a quality she displayed in such films as The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940), both co-starring Cary Grant. Other roles include Julie Gardiner Adams in Penny Serenade (1941), again with Grant, Anna and the King of Siam (1946) as Anna Leonowens, Lavinia Day in Life with Father (1947), and Marta Hanson in I Remember Mama (1948). In The Mudlark (1950), she was nearly unrecognizable under heavy makeup as Queen Victoria.
The comedy It Grows on Trees (1952) became Dunne’s last screen performance, although she remained on the lookout for suitable film scripts for years afterwards.
In her retirement, she devoted herself primarily to civic, philanthropic, and Republican political causes. In 1965, she became a board member of Technicolor, the first woman ever elected to the board of directors.
Dunne remained married to Dr. Francis Griffin until his death on October 14, 1965. They had one daughter, Mary Frances (née Anna Mary Bush), who was adopted in 1936 (finalized in 1938) from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of Charity of New York.
One of Dunne’s last public appearances was in April 1985, when she attended the dedication of a bust in her honor at St. John’s (Roman Catholic) Hospital in Santa Monica, California, for which her foundation, The Irene Dunne Guild, had raised more than $20 million. The Irene Dunne Guild remains “instrumental in raising funds to support programs and services at St. John’s” hospital in Santa Monica.
Dunne died at her Holmby Hills home in Los Angeles on September 4, 1990, and is entombed in the Calvary Cemetery, East Los Angeles. Her personal papers are housed at the University of Southern California. She was survived by her daughter, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.