Good looks helped a lot but they were never quite enough, or quite enough for very long. Each of the great stars of the great days of Hollywood was unique. Irene Dunne, who died on Tuesday evening, was a classic, elegant beauty with a quiet dignity and a personal reserve that contrasted wonderfully with the madcap comedienne she sometimes played (against her own best judgment).
The film faithful will have a choice of ways to remember her. "Theodora Goes Wild" and "The Awful Truth" are masterworks of madcap comedy, thanks in largest part to her particular feathery charm. The mischief was the more enchanting because somehow it always seemed a spontaneous escape from decorum not only for the character but for the proper lady the camera perceived she was at heart.
There are, too, those of us who are likely to hear in memory forever her glorious singing voice--lovely, clear, unforced, utterly romantic and thrilling. She had had musical training but decided, wisely, that grand opera was beyond her gifts and that the operetta and the musical were her forte.
Her singing of "Yesterday" "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in "Roberta" are magic moments from film history, and so is her quiet, intimate crooning (as it almost seems) of "I'll Get By" as she and Spencer Tracy dance to a solo accordion in "A Guy Named Joe."
Actually she thought serious drama, social or romantic, was where she belonged, and when I chatted with her in 1985 just before she was to go to Washington to receive one of the Kennedy Center honors, she said "Love Affair," with Charles Boyer, was probably her favorite among her films.
But there were as well "Back Street" and "Magnificent Obsession" and, a role which gave her her fifth Oscar nomination, "I Remember Mama." That was a character role which, like her Queen Victoria in "The Mudlark," crowned a career remarkable for its excellence and range.
It is a sadness that she did not get to take part in the Kennedy Center honors evening. When she reached Washington an ailing back felled her and she returned to Los Angeles to spend much of her remaining years as a virtual invalid.
But she had had a fine and happy marriage, lasting 38 years until her dentist husband Francis Griffith died in 1965, and she continued her active participation in a number of good works until her own health failed. In her private late as well as in her film work, Irene Dunne was unique.
Her small and amusing vanity was her age, which she said she never discussed. Her favorite birth year was 1904, but other sources have put it as early as 1898 and, after my interview with her in 1985, a reader wrote me that her mother had been born in the same Indiana hospital as Miss Dunne, and that was in 1896.
It is ungallant to raise this matter at all, of course, and my own view is that a woman is as young as she says she is. By any reckoning, 86, 89, 92 or 94 years, Irene Dunne had had a long and splendid life, and brought an uncommon dignity to an industry where it is never in long supply.