Here are 10 things you should know about Irene Dunne, born 121 years ago today. She prepared for an opera career but ended up one of the most popular—and versatile—movie stars of the 1930s and ’40s, excelling in musicals, comedies and dramas.
- Dunne’s father was a government steamboat inspector and her mother was a concert pianist and music teacher.
- Her father died with Dunne was six and she moved with her mother and younger brother to her mother’s hometown, Madison, Indiana.
- Dunne was raised Roman Catholic and remained devout for the rest of her life.
- She attended Chicago Musical College on a scholarship and had designs on a career as an operatic soprano, but her audition for the Metropolitan Opera Company in NYC was not a success.
- Having added an “e” to her last name, Dunne then set her sights on musical theatre. She toured in the popular play Irene in the early 1920s and made her Broadway debut in 1922 in The Clinging Vine by Zelda Sears.
- She earned a role in Showboat after meeting Flo Ziegfeld in an elevator, and it was while touring in that show that she was discovered by Hollywood, signing a contract with RKO in 1929. Her first film role was in Leathernecking (1930), based on the musical Present Arms.
- Dunne, who had married Francis Griffin, a New York dentist, in 1927, moved to Hollywood with her mother and brother, maintaining a long-distance relationship with Griffin for more than five years. He finally moved west in 1936.
- Dunne was originally featured in dramas and musicals and is said to be have been hesitant to tackle comedies, but she hit the comic ground running in 1936 in Theodora Goes Wild. She would go on to excel in screwball and romantic comedies, including The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940).
- Dunne’s last film was It Grows on Trees (1952), though she worked on radio and television after that. “I drifted into acting and drifted out,” she once said. “Acting is not everything. Living is.”
- Dunne was nominated five times for the Best Actress Oscar—for Cimarron (1931), Theodora Goes Wild, The Awful Truth, Love Affair (1939) and I Remember Mama (1948)—but never took home the statuette.
Happy birthday, Irene Dunne, wherever you may be!
We’ve come across any number of theatre flyers over the years (including the drive-in flyers from the late 1950s featured in this post), but we’ve never encountered one quite like this one.
At first glance, it appears to be simply a promotional headshot of once-popular leading man Warner Baxter with a printed autograph (which is surprisingly convincing, by the way—we were briefly fooled into thinking we’d scored an genuine autographed photo of Baxter for a mere five smackers), but turn the photo over, and voila—it’s a programming schedule for three different New Jersey theatres. Part of the name is missing from the top theatre, but a little research has us convinced it was the Branchville Theater in Branchville, New Jersey. All I’ve been able to ascertain about the Branchville is that it was listed in the Film Daily Yearbook in 1944 and 1951, and on one weekend in 1937, they screened The Awful Truth, with Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, Angel with Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Melvyn Douglas, and Conquest, starring Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer.
How much earlier than that the theatre was in operation or when it closed, we can’t say. But we’d pay good money to see those three pictures at a small-town bijou like the Branchville, of that you can be sure.
Also featured on this promotional photo is the Colonial Theatre in Beach Haven, New Jersey. (Did you know that no fewer than ten Jersey towns had a theatre called the Colonial at one time or another? It’s true. And an eleventh burg, Hopewell, had a movie theatre called the Colonial Playhouse.)
This Colonial opened in 1922 as the New Colonial on the corner of Bay Avenue and Center Street, replacing an old wooden structure some blocks away. One source says the old Colonial was retained and used in the winter, when the crowds thinned out (Beach Haven, as you might have guessed, is on the Jersey shore, so the population no doubt used to drop precipitously each year at summer’s end. Probably still does.)
Here’s a pair of then-and-now photos of the Colonial. Word has it, it’s now a private residence and no longer the hardware store it was in 2007, but I have no proof of that.
Interesting to note they were featuring the same three movies the Branchville was showing, but each played one day later at the Colonial. (We can’t help but wonder what the Colonial was showing on Friday, Nov. 12, 1937. The flyer doesn’t say.)
The last bijou on the flyer is the Park Theatre in Barnegat, New Jersey. Both the Barnegat and the Colonial (and, we’re guessing, the Branchville) were owned and operated by one Harry Colmer, who died in 1956. His family operated the theatres until 1964, when they sold them.
The Park, which opened in the early 1900s as the Barnegat Opera House, a venue for vaudeville and minstrel shows, began also showing movies between 1915 and 1920. It later became a full-time movie house under the new name. The Park Theatre, since demolished, was located on Shore Road in Barnegat, which is presently Route 9.
The weekend of Friday and Saturday, November 12th-13th, 1937, the Park was featuring Ali Baba Goes to Town, starring Eddie Cantor, Tony Martin, and Roland Young. That one we’d have to think twice about catching. We’d likely opt to drive the twenty miles over to Beach Haven to take in The Awful Truth or Angel at the Colonial (Branchville lies 142 miles away, a bit of a trek to catch a movie).