Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hilarious Elegance

As those of you who’ve been following along probably have figured out by now, I like to give some exposure to people who seem to have “gone invisible” in our current culture. Today’s candidate is the very elegant & hilariously funny Irene Dunne, the great (& I don’t use that word lightly here) actress from the 30’s & 40’s.

Dunne isn’t unknown—certainly folks who have a decent knowledge of film from that period are aware of her work, & in most cases she receives well-deserved accolades. Still, in comparison with a very comparable actress like Katherine Hepburn, Dunne is “unknown”—her name isn’t a household word, though it should be, & she isn’t a part of the general cultural imagination.

One tag line you run into with Irene Dunne is
“the greatest actress never to receive an Oscar” (though she was nominated four times). Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne addressed this in an introduction to one of her films by noting that her performances were so consistently first-rate that no single one stood out as much as it might for an actor whose work was more uneven; Osborne theorized that the same might be true for Cary Grant, who also never won. Interestingly, Dunne & Grant were a magical combination in three truly great films, The Awful Truth (1937), My Favorite Wife (1940), & Penny Serenade (1941).

Dunne’s films Theodora Goes Wild (1936), her first comedy, & The Awful Truth are essential, because they define so much of the wonderful “screwball comedy” genre. In each of these roles, Dunne plays a complex character, & Dunne is capable of fully articulating these varied & even contradictory facets in a performance that never los
es coherence. In Theodora Goes Wild Theodora Lynn is a small-town woman living with her maiden aunts—& appears well on the way to becoming a maiden aunt herself—except that she secretly (& under a pen name) writes a steamy romance titled “The Sinner”; & after being jilted by a man she’s fallen for, she (however improbably) undergoes a thoroughly believable transformation into a madcap vamp who’s out to exact a hysterical vengeance on the man who “did her wrong,” at the same time exposing & overcoming hypocrisies related to both gender & sexuality.

In The Awful Truth, Dunne’s Lucy Warriner is a fully realized character, capable of incisive wit & true tenderness, of real devotion & giddy flirtation. She can be refined or a floozie—her turn as a drunken vamp singing along to the phonograph
is not to be missed. The plot turns around the characters of Dunne & Grant trying to get a divorce & the misadventures & revelations they discover—in some ways, it bears similarities to the (also great) 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story. There are so many high points in The Awful Truth it’s hard to single out any—Dunne’s scene with Ralph Bellamy & Cary Grant in a nightclub (her new boyfriend & ex-husband) is extremely funny, capped off by a hysterical dance number in which Bellamy plays the straight man.

What are the characteristics that define Dunne’s style? Although Dunne was a very attractive woman, she’s never afraid to “let her back hair down” in the service of comedy; & while she’s not a master of slapstick like Lucille Ball (who played with D
unne in 1938’s The Joy of Living), she was talented at physical comedy. But Dunne’s greatest strengths are her extremely expressive face—she’s able to convey both layers of emotion & rapid shifts of emotion as well as any film actor I’ve seen. Also, Dunne conveys intelligence & wit—you always sense a depth behind her words & movements. Cary Grant reportedly said that Dunne had the best comic timing of any actor he ever worked with. There’s also something appealing about the way she can be at once so elegant (Dunne’s outfits in a number of her movies are the height of stylishness), & also zany.

Of course, while comedy is—in my opinion—Dunne
’s greatest strength, she was an accomplished dramatic actress as well in such films as Magnificent Obsession (1935), Love Affair (1939), Penny Serenade (1941), & I Remember Mama (1948). She was also a gifted singer (though her heavily vibrato style is a bit dated to the contemporary ear); a couple of films that particularly showcase this are Show Boat (1936) & the Astaire-Rogers vehicle Roberta (1935). Dunne sang in a number of roles—her rendition of “Be Still My Heart” in Theodora Goes Wild is laugh out loud funny (or LOL as it were). I’d also single out both Love Affair & Penny Serenade as films in which Dunne “does it all”—demonstrates her dramatic, comedic & musical gifts in one feature.

Dunne played strong women—women who were independently minded, & were successful in getting what they wanted. She’s also able to convey an intelligent—though never “racy” sensuality, as in the final scene of The Awful Truth—no spoilers, but you won’t look at cuckoo clocks the same way again….

Anyway, in these days of NetFlix & video on demand, there’s no excuse for any of us not to be acquainted with the work of this marvelous actress, so do check her out. If you love comedy, try The Awful Truth first; if tearjerkers are more your sty
le, you can’t go wrong with Penny Serenade. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

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