top of page

Oscar Dunne Her Wrong

February 9, 2015

This post is my contribution to the 3rd Annual 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. It runs Feb. 2-24 and there are many, many participants. Please visit any of the three sites to expand your Oscar knowledge!


Irene Dunne enjoyed a career on screen that lasted from 1930-1952. Her reign began a bit differently and later than most: Hollywood beckoned after she had a successful run on the stage in several musicals, Broadway and otherwise. At the time, she was 32, though studio records fudged her birthday a few years to make her 26, and she had graduated college and was on her way to becoming a teacher when a music scholarship sidetracked her and led her to the theater. Instead of working her way up through bit parts like many other movie stars of her time, Dunne exploded onto the scene with her turn in 1930's Cimarron, which was only her second role on the big screen. 

Irene Dunne, looking like a fresh-faced 20 year old, when she was actually in her early 30s.

Dunne racked up five Oscar nominations during her two active decades on screen. Aside from someone like Greer Garson, who made her film debut at 35 and earned six Academy Award nominations (out of a total of seven) in seven years, I'd say that number of nods beginning at a 'late' age over a 'shorter' career is quite rare. Additionally, as Wes Gehring points out in his biography Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood, the films Dunne was recognized for span a wide variety of genres, from Westerns (Cimarron) and screwball comedies (1936's Theodora Goes Wild and 1937's The Awful Truth) to romances (1939's Love Affair) and family dramas (1948's I Remember Mama). The range of genre nominations reflects Dunne's extraordinary depth and diversity as an actress.


Nomination 1 - Cimarron (1930)

Though Dunne's talent on the screen was still unproven at this time (her first film, 1930's Leathernecking, flopped), if there was any doubt as to her ability, it would be laid to rest with her performance in Cimarron. Dunne's role as Sabra required her to age four decades and tackle a range of emotions as she heroically takes control of her family when her husband leaves her and eventually becomes a successful Congresswoman (27-28). 

What appears to be a Swedish poster for Cimarron.

That year, Dunne's opposition included Marlene Dietrich (Morocco), Ann Harding (Holiday), Norma Shearer (A Free Soul), and winner Marie Dressler (Min and Bill). Since the Academy tends to favor heavier dramas and epics today, it's interesting to look back at their choices when the show was still in its infancy; after all, Dressler's performance in Min and Bill, along with Harding's, clearly dipped into comedic territory, a genre often overlooked during awards season today. I really enjoyed Dietrich's sultry performance and Shearer's free-spirit, but it's Dunne's deft handling of such an intricate and emotionally (not to mention physically) evolving role this early in her career that stands out in the pack (and in the otherwise dated picture).


After Cimarron, Dunne booked roles in a string of pre-codes, including 1931's Consolation Marriage, 1932's bizarre Thirteen Women and 1933's terrific Ann Vickers (which I think she should have been nominated for), among many others. She also ventured into melodrama territory with films such as 1935's Magnificent Obsession, but by the mid-30s, Dunne found herself in a dramatic rut, one that she remembered years later she wanted to break out of. Luckily for her, musicals came to the rescue, though it's a bit ironic that Dunne never caught the attention of the Academy in this genre, especially since her voice was by and large what brought her to Hollywood. Within a few years in the mid-30s, she appeared in 1934's Sweet Adeline, 1935's Roberta (with Astaire and Rogers, though Dunne received top billing), and 1936's Show Boat.


Nominations 2 and 3: Theodora Goes Wild (1936) and The Awful Truth (1937)

Even with hints of her comedic ability shining through in some of her earlier outings (as far back as the 1931 short The Stolen Jools, in fact), as legend goes, Dunne was so terrified of accepting her screwball fate that she actually left town to duck the lead role in Theodora Goes Wild. Gehring quoted her: "I tried every way to get out of doing it. My husband and I even sailed off to Europe. But when I came back, the studio was right there to meet me, script in hand" (38). Thank goodness she gave in, because Dunne proved a natural in the form, bringing a ladylike, down to earth quality (mixed with occasional pathos, of course) that was rarely present in other screwball outings (71). 

In Theodora Goes Wild, Dunne goes from small town girl... sophisticated, vampy looking (here) scandalous author.

Dunne kicked off the era working with Leo McCarey, a director she quickly became close with and adored, in Theodora Goes Wild (1936), which won her the second of five Oscar nominations. Within the next few years she appeared in The Awful Truth (1937), Joy of Living (1938), and My Favorite Wife (1940). Today, comedy performances are very rarely bestowed Oscar nominations, let alone wins, so the fact that Dunne was nominated twice in a row for both Theodora Goes Wild and The Awful Truth is quite remarkable. The only other comedic turn up for consideration those two years was Carole Lombard's in My Man Godfrey (1936). 

Dunne with director Leo McCarey (who won the Oscar for Best Director for this film) and co-star Cary Grant in The Awful Truth.

Interestingly, the two consecutive years Dunne lost out for both Theodora Goes Wild and The Awful Truth are now historic, in her category in particular, because newcomer Luise Rainer became the first person to win back-to-back Oscars those two years. The first film Rainer won for, The Great Ziegfeld, which clinched the Best Picture award as well, is generally considered the weaker of Rainer's two wins, but The Great Ziegfeld is 1. a biopic about 2. entertainment, so those could perhaps provide some clues. Other nominees that year included Norma Shearer (way too old in Romeo and Juliet), Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey) and Gladys George (Valiant is the Word for Carrie). Without having seen Valiant is the Word for Carrie (has anyone?!), and with the benefit of knowing the future, I'd be split on giving this award to either Dunne or Lombard, the latter for her perfectly daffy yet delightful performance.


The second Rainer film that stole (yes, stole for this one) the Oscar from Dunne for The Awful Truth­ was The Good Earth. Admittedly, I have not seen the movie, though I've heard good things. The pair's rivals that year were a bit stronger than 1936's: Greta Garbo (Camille), Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born), and Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas). Not counting The Good Earth, two nominated performances this year stand above the rest to me. Dunne's turn in The Awful Truth sparkles; her sardonic jabs and adorable, yet seductive sideways glances match Cary Grant's word for word and look for look. She's sophisticated, alluring, and stubborn, but she's also game to fool around and masquerade as a ditzy Southern Belle to lampoon her husband (and win back his affection). Her performance makes me laugh and smile every time, just as Barbara Stanwyck's breaks my heart in Stella Dallas. Stanwyck turned in one of her greatest - and certainly most complex - performances as the unrefined, brash, and ultimately self-sacrificing Stella, and that's saying a lot. So, I'd be partial to a Stanwyck/Dunne tie that year. Hey, it's happened before!  

Dunne and Grant seemingly posed for numerous publicity shots for The Awful Truth, and I love them all.

Nomination 4 - Love Affair (1939)

Dunne then entered some heavy romantic and dramatic territory with roles in Love Affair (1939) and Penny Serenade (1941), the latter of which Dunne sometimes referred to as her favorite film (Cimarron mostly took that honor in interviews). Dunne's selection as one of the five ladies up for Best Actress in 1939 for her lovable, spirited, and nuanced turn in Love Affair is noteworthy in itself; after all, 1939 is frequently termed Hollywood's Golden Year, a time when several now iconic films were released. Love Affair grows on me every time I see it, but Dunne was up against some considerable competition; the Best Actress field that year could have easily featured 10 nominees, but only five were chosen: Bette Davis (Dark Victory), Greta Garbo (Ninotchka), Greer Garson (Goodbye, Mr. Chips) and winner Vivien Leigh (Gone with the Wind). I understand the win for Leigh, and though I adore Love Affair, Garbo blew me away, as did Davis. What a year - I would have liked to see all of them win!

Dunne with Charles Boyer, one of her favorite co-stars, and that epic skyscraper behind them, in Love Affair.

Nomination 5 - I Remember Mama (1948)

Dunne's film output shrunk considerably during the war years since she concentrated heavily on doing her part for war effort and caring for her sick husband. However, the roles she took still brightly exemplified her variety, ranging from comedies (1944's Together Again and 1945's Over 21) to war dramas (1943's A Guy Named Joe and 1944's The White Cliffs of Dover). After the war, she transitioned smoothly to some of her most well-known period matronly roles in Anna and the King of Siam (1946), Life with Father (1947) and I Remember Mama (1948), which garnered her fifth and final nomination.


Dunne's role as the sensitive and industrious matron was up against some pretty intense characters in a bevy of heavy dramas, including a deaf mute rape victim (Jane Wyman, the winner, in Johnny Belinda), an infamous historical figure (Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc), a trapped mental patient (Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit), and an invalid targeted for murder (Barbara Stanwyck in Sorry, Wrong Number). I can understand why Dunne's performance, relatively delicate and heartwarming compared to these, didn't break through for the win. The year's forerunners were Wyman and de Havilland; however, Dunne's friend Loretta Young, who was the surprise winner the year before for The Farmer's Daughter, encouraged her friend to keep up the hope. Indeed, Dunne was considered the dark horse that year, and critics raved that her performance was "her finest role" (Cue magazine) and "the most demanding role of her career" (Variety) (161). Though I agree that I Remember Mama features one of Dunne's strongest and most identifiable portrayals, Wyman's groundbreaking turn is truly remarkable, particularly for the amazing emotional effect she achieves without uttering a word.

Dunne in I Remember Mama.

The Legacy

Dunne joins a list of very distinguished actresses nominated four or more times for Oscars without winning: Barbara Stanwyck (4), Rosalind Russell (4), and Deborah Kerr (6). However, each of these women were eventually recognized by the Academy in one way or another: Stanwyck and Kerr received Honorary Oscars, while Russell was presented with the Jean Hersolt Humanitarian Award. Yet, for some surprising and frustrating reason, the Academy never had the notion (or if they did, the chance) to present Dunne with an Honorary Oscar.


Was it because she had been retired for decades? Since her life and marriage were always grounded, no real scandals or character flaws haunted her legacy to bring her name up again years later. Or perhaps it was due to the fact that almost one quarter of her films (at least 10 of 40 or so) have been remade, most famously 1939's Love Affair (1957's An Affair to Remember), 1935's Magnificent Obsession (the 1954 film of the same name), and 1946's Anna and the King of Siam (1956's The King and I), which kept her original performances out of sight for so long.

Well, at least Dunne's work was recognized by the Kennedy Center. She joins fellow 1985 honorees Merce Cunningham, Beverly Sills, Bob Hope (back row), Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (front row).

Whatever the reason, it certainly had nothing to do with her talent. Throughout her career, Dunne consistently received high praise for her performances and won equal recognition for her ability to easily tackle a wide variety of genres with grace and a sense of realism and naturalism. Perhaps it's this trait that contributes the biggest reason as to why she never clinched an Oscar statuette; put simply, she made everything look so damn easy, which everyone knows is an incredibly difficult thing to do. 

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Facebook Basic Square
bottom of page