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Irene Dunne, Leading Star of '30s and '40s, Dies at 88 : Film: She pioneered in establishing contract rights. The actress was nominated for five Oscars.

September 05, 1990|From a Times Staff Writer

Irene Dunne, one of the top film stars of the 1930s and 1940s and a pioneer in establishing contract rights for Hollywood actors and actresses, died Tuesday at her Holmby Hills home of natural causes. She was 88.

Five times nominated for the Academy Award but never a winner, she was a longtime "bankable" box-office star, whose combination of beauty, intelligence, innocent allure and highly trained voice allowed her to play leading ladies in films ranging from screwball comedies to romantic dramas.

"There was nothing she couldn't play, nothing," director Leo McCarey once told an interviewer. "I was always glad when she wanted me on a picture of hers. It meant I could relax--and still bring in a winner."

Miss Dunne, who had been in poor health the past year and bedridden the last month, died about 6:20 p.m. Tuesday, said John Larkin, her business manager. She had been suffering from an irregular heartbeat and received care at her estate from private nurses, he said.

She was nominated for the Academy Award for roles in "Cimarron," 1931; "Theodora Goes Wild," 1936; "The Awful Truth," 1937; "Love Affair," 1939 and "I Remember Mama," 1948. She was always first choice for the type of roles that seemed to epitomize late-1930s film making at its best, starring opposite the likes of Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy.

She also was the quietly acknowledged leader of a revolution in Hollywood. Miss Dunne was one of the first stars to break free of the studio system, demanding a non-exclusive contract that gave her the right to make films at other studios and to decide who should direct them.

And, in accepting a role in government--as alternate delegate to the United Nations in the late 1950s--she helped blaze a trail that other film actors would follow, including her friend Ronald Reagan.

Miss Dunne was born Dec. 20, 1901 in Louisville, Ky., the daughter of a steamship inspector and an accomplished musician.

As a child, she studied piano and voice with private teachers at insistence of her mother. She earned her first professional fees singing in a church choir, and spent a year studying music at the Academy of Fine Arts in Indianapolis.

While teaching music at a high school in East Chicago in the 1920s, she won a music competition at the Chicago Musical College. She spent the following year studying voice and then headed for New York, with a dreams of joining the Metropolitan Opera.

"I actually got an audition," she once told a reporter, "and they spoke kindly to me. But the rejection was firm: 'Too young, too inexperienced, and too slight.' "

Miss Dunne turned to musical comedy and landed a role in the Broadway hit "Irene." She had auditioned for a supporting role--and was promptly signed for the lead.

From 1922 to 1926, she stayed busy with top roles in such productions as "The Clinging Vine," "Lollipop," "The City Chap" and "Sweetheart Time."

A key turning point in her career came about by accident. One day in an elevator, she encountered Florenz Ziegfeld, who assumed the attractive redhead was on her way to see him. When she didn't appear in his office--she was actually headed for an appointment with her agent in the same building--he sent his secretary scurrying to find her.

Ziegfeld signed her for the lead in the road company of "Showboat"--which played to standing-room-only crowds for 72 weeks across the nation. The production brought her to the attention of a scout for RKO Radio Pictures.

She made her screen debut in 1930 in "Leathernecking," an unsuccessful non-musical version of a Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart show.

In 1931, she earned the leading role in the film "Cimarron." She received her first Oscar nomination and was established as a major star--a status she would retain for more than two decades. A year later, "Back Street" became one of the top box-office attractions of the era.

Her renditions of "Yesterday" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in the film "Roberta" helped make the film one of the major screen events of 1935 and lent force to her demand for more freedom when her contract came up for renewal the next year.

Given the right to make pictures at other studios, she promptly moved to Universal, where "Showboat" was being filmed as a musical. Re-creating her touring company role as Magnolia, she won critical praise in the production, which was also a hit at the box office.

Then came "Theodora Goes Wild," an extravagant 1936 comedy about a prim New England girl who writes a racy book.

The late Cary Grant was her co-star in "The Awful Truth" a comedy that earned her yet another Academy Award nomination in 1938. Grant also starred opposite her in another comedy classic, "My Favorite Wife" two years later.

"She should have won (an Oscar), you know," Grant once said. "And she would have, too . . . but she was so good--her timing was so marvelous--that she made comedy look easy. If she'd made it look as difficult as it really is, she'd have won."

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