She started out in “weepies,” women’s pictures for the matinee crowd, but she hit her stride in sophisticated, “screwball” comedies. But no matter what part she played Irene Dunne was always “the Lady,” both on and off the screen.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, going out a bit of a limb here today.
That’s because we are making the boldface assertion that if you have to see only one Irene Dunne picture, make it RKO’s Love Affair, director Leo McCarey’s 1939 romantic drama in which the actress portrays an American woman romanced by a French playboy (Charles Boyer).
Both leads are superb as is a supporting character performance contributed by Maria Ouspenskaya are a kindly grandmother. But what unmistakably registers is Dunne’s sexy performance blending rueful emotion with a light comedic touch.
Somehow, Dunne and sex are words that don’t often crop up in the same sentence. Yes, Dunne was by all means a Lady. But a surprisingly sexy one even by contemporary standards. In this film she looks terrific. It’s not surprising to learn that Love Affair is Dunne’s as well as Boyer’s favorite of their pictures.
Yes, Dunne started out as a singer. A stage performance in Show Boat led to an RKO contract and her debut in Leathernecking in 1930. Stardom was cemented when she took the reins in 1932 of John Stahl’s Back Street melodrama, firmly establishing Dunne as the queen of weepies.
Her great facility with comedy was amply displayed in 1937’s The Awful Truth costarring Cary Grant, who expressed admiration for her comic timing and something else. Grant remarked, said Dunne, that she was “the sweetest smelling actress he ever worked with.”
When it came to the Academy Awards, Dunne was nominated five times but never won. Her subtle, provocative performance in Love Affair was undoubtedly the victim of bad timing.
The film came out in the year of Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Gunga Din, Ninotchka and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington among other memorable titles. Pretty steep competition.
So, we recommend you take another look at this wonderful movie, 87 minutes of bliss. Yes, Irene Dunne reigned as Hollywood’s “Lady.” But she was also one sexy woman.