Remembering Irene Dunne at the Park Ridge Public Library by matthew c. hoffman

Irene Dunne with “Jake” on the set of Theodora Goes Wild.
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Irene Marie Dunne (1898-1990) was one of the great Hollywood stars from the 1930s and 1940s. She had been a Broadway actress prior to a career in movies. She appeared opposite some of the most famous screen legends of her day including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (Roberta), Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife), and Charles Boyer (Love Affair), among others. Though she began as a star of dramas and musicals, she is best known today for the screwball comedies she appeared in such as Theodora Goes Wild— a role, ironically, she did not want to do. Throughout a career that spanned 42 films, Irene Dunne received five nominations for Best Actress.

This past Thursday night, the Park Ridge Public Library was honored to have Irene Dunne’s granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich, as a special guest prior to our screening of Theodora Goes Wild (1936).

Irene’s great screwball comedy in which she plays a small-town girl who secretly writes a scandalous best-seller!
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After the prize drawing and our introductions, Ann-Marie Streibich came to the podium and spoke at length about her grandmother– “Mimi,” as she has called her ever since she was little. She had lived with Irene in her later years and provided us with wonderful insights into the kind of woman Irene Dunne was, both on and off the screen. In the words of Jimmy Stewart, whom she quoted, she was “a woman of patrician beauty poised with regal grace.”

Ann-Marie, and her brother Mark, who also lived with Irene, have been deeply affected by their grandmother’s presence in their lives. “She spoke of having a purpose greater than herself; of living life ‘in a state of grace’ as though she could live as an instrument by which other lives might be improved through a form of divine will combined with the best of human intent.” Irene Dunne had a positive affect on other people’s spirits– “in a wavelength way beyond charisma.” Ann-Marie told us that Irene’s personal integrity has been a guiding light in her own life. Her Mimi is still with her in a very real way.

A capacity crowd lined up past the front door to see Irene Dunne!
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Ann-Marie spoke of her grandmother’s upbringing in the genteel South. Irene’s was influenced by the philosophy and wisdom of her parents. Both of whom shaped the character of the woman she would become. Her father was a steamboat inspector and her mother taught music, which opened a door to the arts. When her father passed away when she was only eleven, the family re-located to Madison, Indiana, which was the hometown of Irene’s mother. (For more about Madison and these early influences, please refer to our entry, “The Irene Dunne Pilgrimage.”)

Ann-Marie said that Irene eventually left Madison to take a job teaching music in East Chicago. There, she lived with a cousin. “One morning she saw the Chicago Tribune on the breakfast table; she saw an ad for a scholarship for singing at the prestigious Chicago Musical College. She took the ad and went to go prepare for the audition. She won! The head of the school was Dr. Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Theatre in Chicago, where she would perform to get stage experience.”

Dr. Ziegfeld gave Irene a letter of recommendation to give to his son, the famous Florenz Ziegfeld of New York City. (This connection helped her two years later when she landed her first role in Hollywood.) It was in New York, too, where she would meet her future husband, Dr. Frank Griffin, in 1924. “He was her partner, co-manager and best friend,” said Ann-Marie. “In the early years of marriage, she was in Hollywood crafting her career and he was a successful businessman in New York City. They were a bi-coastal married couple for six years before he moved to Los Angeles, when it became apparent that her career had taken off.”

A movie star with style and charm: Irene Dunne.
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Irene Dunne’s first major role– and the first of her Best Actress nominations– came for her performance in the Western Cimarron (1931). She became a huge star for RKO but negotiated an independent contract that allowed her to work at other studios. Much in demand throughout the 1930s, Irene appeared in many dramas (‘women’s pictures’ like Back Street and Magnificent Obsession) and musicals (Sweet Adeline). She reprised her stage role of Magnolia in the definitive, 1936 version of Show Boat directed by James Whale. In 1937 she teamed up with Cary Grant for Leo McCarey’s screwball comedy The Awful Truth, and in 1939 she was on an ocean voyage with Charles Boyer in the romantic hit Love Affair, also directed by McCarey. In the 1940s, Irene appeared in two of her best-known films: Life With Father (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948).

Irene Dunne retired from films in 1953. In the wake of her movie stardom, she devoted herself to various Republican Party causes and Catholic charities. In 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower appointed her as an alternate delegate to the 12th General Assembly of the United Nations. In 1985 she was recognized by the Kennedy Center Honors. According to Ann-Marie, Irene was thrilled when she was given the lifetime achievement award. This was an event in which she was able to accompany her grandmother.

Some of Irene’s closest friends included Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart and his wife, Gloria, Rosalind Russell, Loretta Young, the Bob Hopes, and others. “I used to sit in my closet peering down through a lighting hole at her guests at the dining table. They could include any or all of these people and of course many, many others. I was often invited to come down during the cocktail portion of a dinner party and say my polite hellos. At the end of the night, there would always be my Mimi singing, to the delight of her friends.”

Irene Dunne received the gifts of life her father had wanted her to have. “With her strong sense of self-reliance and independence, her father’s creed governed her actions for her family and herself until the day she died. When she drew her last breath she indeed fulfilled every word of the ethics of life he whispered to her on his dying breath.”

Ann-Marie clearly takes pride in promoting the sterling image Irene Dunne has left behind. Besides presenting us with stories and answering audience questions, she brought a wonderful photo album. Inside were many movie stills from Irene’s early films. Ann-Marie also had a very old scrapbook that featured many brittle newspaper clippings. Despite its delicate condition, it was important to her that this be shared. I know our audience was very grateful to her for bringing her grandmother to us in this way.

With Irene’s granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich.
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Irene Dunne is a name young people should remember. Though she’s been gone for nearly twenty-five years, Irene Dunne can still be a role model to today’s generation– especially young women– because of how she lived her life with dignity and intelligence. Her film career, likewise, is a legacy that can inspire younger people. Besides reminding us of the unique qualities that make a star, the films themselves offer viewers such happiness and cheer. Unfortunately, many of her early films are unavailable on dvd while others have been turned into lesser remakes. But these handicaps shouldn’t stop anyone from rediscovering the many talents of Irene Dunne.

And here is the interview with Radio Hall of Famer Chuck Schaden that I referenced on Thursday night…

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