Viewpoint: Quality Attraction


Dunne and Allan Jones in Show Boat, 1936
© Universal Pictures/Photofest 2012

Although Universal's 1936 film of Show Boat was (and is) one of the best-remembered of Irene Dunne's more than forty movies as a Hollywood star, the lady herself was initially reluctant to make it. Dunne (1898–1990) felt that Englishman James Whale was the wrong choice to direct a property as all-American as Show Boat. In her opinion, Whale didn't understand the milieu of life on the Mississippi — a world that Dunne, the daughter of a steamboat engineer, knew particularly well despite her image as one of the screen's great exponents of sophisticated comedy. Born in Kentucky and raised in Missouri and Indiana, Dunne spent some of her happiest childhood years in the "lazy, charming, lackadaisical atmosphere of the sleepy Ohio and Mississippi River Valley," as she remembered it in a 1945 interview.

The product of a musical family — her mother had studied piano at the Cincinnati Conservatory — Dunne fell in love with opera after seeing Geraldine Farrar in a performance of Madama Butterfly. Ambitious for a career in opera, she studied at Indianapolis Conservatory and Chicago Musical College; in 1919, the year of her graduation in Chicago, Dunne sang "Ombre légère," from Meyerbeer's Dinorah,in a concert with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Auditorium Theatre. Her charm and innate musicality aside, Dunne's voice seems to have been too small for opera: in an interview with The Toronto Star's James Bawden in the 1970s, she mentioned two tryouts for the Metropolitan Opera in the 1920s but admitted that she "flunked" her auditions.

Most of Dunne's onstage work in her pre-Hollywood days was in musical comedy on Broadway or on tour. Her association with Jerome Kern seems to have begun in 1925, when Dunne played in The City Chap, an unsuccessful Kern show, and continued a few years later, when she first sang Magnolia, in the touring company of Show Boat. Dunne's classy, dry-eyed style was well suited to Kern's elegantly flowing melodies. In Hollywood, she starred in several films with Kern scores and introduced two Kern standards, "Lovely to Look At" (composed for the film of Roberta) and "You Couldn't Be Cuter" (in The Joy of Living).

When Dunne was cast in the Show Boat film, she was a well-established star in her late thirties. Her wit and lightness of touch allowed her to get away with playing Magnolia's more overtly ingenue-ish moments opposite a leading man, Allan Jones, who was almost a decade her junior. Dunne's onstage experience as Magnolia gave weight and authenticity to her performance, as was the case with her fellow cast members who were veterans of the Broadway or London companies of the show. 

For audiences watching the Show Boat film in 2012, the work of Dunne and her colleagues has a powerful emotional and stylistic connection to the original work. Those connections are too often missing when musicals reach the screen these days, as witness the semi-singing (if endearingly "game") stars of the recent films of Sweeney Todd, Chicago and Nine. But things just might be looking up. This winter, director Tom Hooper is making the long-anticipated film of Les Misérables, and there's a star with genuine musical-theater credentials in the lead — Hugh Jackman. Stay tuned. spacer


CORRECTION: The Mozart aria "Deh, per questo" is from La Clemenza di Tito, not Idomeneo, as stated in "The Sweet Voice of Reason" (Dec.).

The opinions expressed in OPERA NEWS do not necessarily represent the views of The Metropolitan Opera Guild or The Metropolitan Opera.

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