Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) – Best Actress of 1937

Other Noteworthy Performances:

Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas)

Beaulah Bondi (Make Way for Tomorrow)

Jean Arthur (Easy Living)

Greta Garbo (Camille)

Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred)

Bette Davis (Marked Woman)

Janet Gaynor (A Star is Born)

Ginger Rogers (Stage Door)

Sylvia Sidney (You Only Live Once)

Yang Bai (Crossroads)

Greta Garbo (Conquest)

It should be clear by now that I love The Awful Truth.  It’s my choice for the second best picture of 1937 and Cary Grant got the nod as best actor.  And now Irene Dunne edges out Barbara Stanwyck for her fantastic performance in the classic tear-jerker Stella Dallas.  The race between Dunne and Stanwyck was close in my mind and, if I didn’t shy away from shortcuts, I would declare a tie, but the best of the year is just that – the best.  Not the group or a pair of the best, but the best.  So I had to make the tough call and Irene Dunne comes out as my favorite, however slightly, of the two.

Maybe my preference for Dunne has something to do with the bias the Academy has always had against comedy, an issue I discussed in the Cary Grant essay.  Like Grant, some of Dunne’s best work has been in comedy – sometimes alongside him as in The Awful Truth.  As Lucy Warriner she is both airily sophisticated and madcap, the perfect foil for Cary Grant’s Jerry.

Irene Dunne had a talent for humor which she discovered in her first comedy role – Theodora Goes Wild – the year before.  Apparently she had been nervous about playing for laughs, but she did so well that Columbia Pictures immediately cast her in another comedy, The Awful Truth.  Her success came from her willingness to poke fun at her own well-mannered persona.  She was also a master at using non-verbal cues that subverted the meaning of her written line to great effect.  A slight giggle or a crinkle of the nose alerted the audience that she was dipping her toes in ironic waters.  At one point Lucy’s suitor Dan Leeson describes his ranch in Oklahoma and suggests Lucy come out and visit it.  Trying to gracefully decline, Lucy says, “Oh I don’t get out that way very …”  She trails off, as if deciding there’s really no use being polite, crinkles up her nose and quickly shakes her head.  It’s a remarkably funny and subtle moment.

One of her most glorious moments in The Awful Truth is also one of my favorite movie scenes of all time.  She is singing at a recital and Jerry makes an utter fool of himself as he falls and gets his legs tangled in a small table.  Through all the noise, Lucy continues to sing, watching her soon-to-be ex-husband dig himself into a deeper hole of humiliation with every move he makes.  Once he gives up, we cut back to Lucy.  She is ending the operatic aria and she tries to hold it together, to finish with dignity, but can’t suppress a devilish laugh between two notes.  Only someone with the talent and instincts of Irene Dunne could have pulled off such a moment of fiendish glee.

The movie soars when Ms. Dunne is on-screen.  Though it also soars when she is off-screen, suggesting she not only held her own with some great supporting actors like Cary Grant, but was also able to keep up with a demanding screenplay, something only actresses like Carole Lombard, Jean Arthur, or Katherine Hepburn were able to do at the time.  If the situation called for it, she could spit out her dialogue at machine gun pace without ever losing her sophisticated, easy-going charm.

Ms. Dunne handles Lucy’s flightiness, jealousy, and stubbornness with aplomb.  She isn’t thrown by Lucy’s contradictions; she feeds off of them.  Ms. Dunne was able to make sense out of Lucy and translate that interpretation to us.  So when we watch, Lucy makes sense in a screwy way.  We accept her in furs and diamonds, but we also accept her when she dresses up like a woman of questionable values and pretends to be Jerry’s loud, uncouth sister to break up his engagement.  She will do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Irene Dunne's Lucy (center) comes between Jerry and his finacee

 

Ms. Dunne did not just turn in the best female performance of 1937, but one of the best comedic performances of all time and, alongside Cary Grant, helped put together one of the great classic movie comedies.  It’s an exceptional movie loaded with great performances.

 

 

 

 

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6 Comments

Filed under 1937, Yearly Best Performances

6 responses to “Irene Dunne (The Awful Truth) – Best Actress of 1937

  1. She deserves it alright.

    By the way, do you know PENNY SERENADE (1941)? Again with Cary and Irene … although awfully sad (never cried that much over a flicker) it’s a wonderful story, with big-big great heart in it.

    And now I must disappoint you again: I’m going in a big way for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT these days (February 1934). If this thing should get an Oscar (or a few more) I’ll sing HALLELUJAH AMEN-AMEN!! ;D

    • Of course she deserves it! I’m glad to hear you agree Clarissa. And yes I know PENNY SERENADE and will be considering it for 1941 for which both Dunne and Grant will be contenders for acting nods.

      Since I am a few years ahead of you I know I know the ultimate fate of the massively overrated IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. I won’t give it away, but I will say you should put your money on it in a big way come Oscar time.

  2. Cary Grant begging and crying as young father in the court room for his little daughter. That is really great. I never hated Cary, was just a bit angry at him for certain reasons… But since that scene I say: RESPECT – RESPECT!

    I consider IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT a great film. The duo Colbert-Gable is really great and convincing. And the story is marvelous. In 1934 I’d say: “Good films like this never get an Oscar anyway … I better put my dough on that stupid DAMES…”

  3. “One of her most glorious moments in The Awful Truth is also one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. She is singing at a recital and Jerry makes an utter fool of himself as he falls and gets his legs tangled in a small table. Through all the noise, Lucy continues to sing, watching her soon-to-be ex-husband dig himself into a deeper hole of humiliation with every move he makes. Once he gives up, we cut back to Lucy. She is ending the operatic aria and she tries to hold it together, to finish with dignity, but can’t suppress a devilish laugh between two notes. Only someone with the talent and instincts of Irene Dunne could have pulled off such a moment of fiendish glee.”

    Oh how true and beautifully rendered. You’ve almost convinced Jason, but my final choice is the “other” one you wrestled with, Barbara Stanwyck (who I feel can’t be denied) Perhaps your overriding and abiding love for THE AWFUL TRUTH was the deciding factor? Well, I reject that notion, as Dunne was extraordinary, and by any barometer of measurement was one of the year’s best. God, you give that starlet quite an essay here–one of your best in fact, but there’s where your passion shines through. For me Dunne pushes close, and only Stanwyck and Janet Gaynor may edge her out. But a number of choice, including Katherine Hepburn would be worthy #1’s.

    My choices for 1937:

    Best Actress:
    Barbara Stanwyck, STELLA DALLAS

    Runners-Up:

    Janet Gaynor, A STAR IS BORN
    Jean Arthur, EASY LIVING
    Irene Dunn, THE AWFUL TRUTH
    Luise Rainer, THE GOOD EARTH
    Ginger Rogers, STAGE DOOR
    Carole Lombard, NOTHING SACRED
    Sylvia Sidney, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE
    Francoise Rosay, DROLE DE DRAME
    Anna Neagle, VICTORIA THE GREAT
    Annabella, WINGS OF THE MORNING
    Yang Bai, CROSSROADS
    Beulah Bondi, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW
    Marlene Dietrich, ANGEL
    Michiko Kuwano, FORGET LOVE FOR NOW
    Katherine Hepburn, STAGE DOOR
    Bette Davis, MARKED WOMAN
    Kay Francis, CONFESSION
    Ingrid Bergman, EN KVINNAS ANSIKTE
    Edna Best, SOUTH RIDING
    Greta Garbo, CAMILLE

    Hope you are enjoying your holiday week my very good friend! In fact I know you are! I am taking Lucille and Melanie tonight to check out BLUE VALENTINE (Gianfrance will be there to moderate a Q & A) and then right after that, Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR in the same Angelika Film Center. I know you will be busy too on that front over the upcoming weeks.

    Happy New Year to you and yours, Jason!

    • Well I can’t argue with Stanwyck at all. She is an admirable choice. Yes, my love for THE AWFUL TRUTH may have pushed this one over the top for me. As always you have a formidable group of runner ups including a rarely seen Swedish Ingrisd Bergman picture. Nice choice.

      How funny that you should be seeing BLUE VALENTINE and ANOTHER YEAR tonight. I just got back from ANOTHER YEAR and am planning on going out to BLUE VALENTINE later tonight. I will be interested to hear what you think of ANOTHER YEAR. I have some very definite feelings about it and can’t wait to start writing about it…

  4. Both ANOTHER YEAR and BLUE VALENTINE immediately take their place among the very best films of 2010!!!

    They weren’t exactly “feel-good” movies, but by any barometer of measurement they were absolutely brilliant.

    Thus, yesterday was the single best day I’ve experienced at the cinema in 2010!!!!!!!!!!

    I may be penning a review of one of these today as well. I look forward to your writing my friend.

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