Irene Dunne: Laughing While Singing

I’m posting this for my dear friend Kate – who had not seen the wonderful Awful Truth until recently. I was so excited for her to experience it. I told her when I was in Chicago that she reminds me of Irene Dunne – Kate has that same sweet honesty, and down-home grace (Kate could totally kick ass in Penny Serenade, for example) – but she also has a completely LUNATIC side – which Irene Dunne has in spades. God forbid if you are ever in a serious drama with Kate. Which I was. Try to keep a straight face through a long LONG serious-faced photo call with this woman. Impossible!

My favorite scene is where Jerry busts into the music room, thinking he will catch his soon-to-be-ex-wife in the arms of her music teacher, only to find that she is in the middle of giving a hoity-toity little concert to about 10 people. He BURSTS into the room … and then freezes. You hear her trilling and twittering like a little bird, standing by the grand piano. He tries to be quiet when he realizes his error. She, singing up front, just gets this gleam in her eyes, when she sees him … It’s like you suddenly just KNOW … you KNOW how much she loves him. (In the next scene, despite the disastrous ending to her concert – she goes home and tells her aunt about it – and in the middle of re-telling the tale, she starts laughing – and it’s REAL laughter. Irene Dunne was not a mannerist type actress, with all these coy little gestures. She didn’t really have a “style” of acting. Her stuff would fit in with movie actors today. Love her. Anyway – it’s like she realizes that she still loves the guy, even though his suspicions are ruining their marriage. I love her realization that that is the case – it happens WHILE she is singing, and you can see it glowing out of her face.)

And then of course there is his spectacular pratfall that ends that scene. The fall that just keeps going and going and going … You keep thinking it can’t get any funner … but … it DOES.

And that last scene is just classic. I love how SERIOUSLY they do it, how SEIROUSLY they say those ridiculous words … and yet … it’s so FUNNY, despite the seriousness of their situation. That last scene was mostly improvised, by the way … for those of you who have seen it:

Jerry: In a half an hour, we’ll no longer be ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ Funny, isn’t it?

Lucy: Yes, it’s funny that everything’s the way it is on account of the way you feel.

Jerry: Huh?

Lucy: Well, I mean if you didn’t feel the way you do, things wouldn’t be the way they are, would they? Well, I mean things could be the same if things were different.

Jerry: But things are the way you made them.

Lucy: Oh no. No, things are the way you think I made them. I didn’t make them that way at all. Things are just the same as they always were, only you’re the same as you were, too, so I guess things will never be the same again…You’re all confused, aren’t you?

Jerry: Uh-huh. Aren’t you?

Lucy: No.

Jerry: Well, you should be, because you’re wrong about things being different because they’re not the same. Things are different, except in a different way. You’re still the same, only I’ve been a fool. Well, I’m not now. So, as long as I’m different, don’t you think that, well, maybe things could be the same again? Only a little different, huh?


Ralph Bellamy yet again plays the goofball farm boy (the same part he played in His Girl Friday) who wins the girl by default. Him singing “Home home on the range” off-key, as Irene Dunne plays (and winces at his terrible notes) is one of the funniest scenes in the movie. He’s so SINCERE. He has no idea, NONE, how awful he sounds … and really, to him, what matters is that he is sincere in his heart, and loves the song. The notes are irrelevant. But to the rest of the world who has to listen to him? It’s another story.

There’s an exchange in the film that completely explains what exactly goes on between the hero and heroine in a screwball comedy:

Daniel [Bellamy]: Are you sure you don’t like that fella?

Lucy [Dunne]: Like him? You saw the way I treated him, didn’t you?

Daniel [Bellamy]: : That’s what I mean. Back on my ranch, I got a little red rooster and a little brown hen and they fight all the time too, but every once in a while they make up again and they’re right friendly.

Yup. It’s that whole Howard Hawks phenomena.

Better to find someone you can enjoy sparring with (and it has to be equal sparring – The women are as strong as the man, if not stronger, in screwball comedies – otherwise, what’s the fun??) than get swept away by some grand humorless passion.

This movie was what launched the whole screwball genre (with a couple of important precursors – It Happened One Night being the most obvious) It also launched Cary Grant’s career. Cary Grant had been successful for a couple of years, but after The Awful Truth he became “important”. He never looked back.

The Awful Truth – even more so than Bringing Up Baby is the ultimate screwball comedy.

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9 Responses to Irene Dunne: Laughing While Singing

  1. Stevie says:

    Look at that hat!!! Red, you could do a whole, huge post on the way hats were used to express the personalities of all those dippy heiresses in screwball comedies from the Thirties. I remember quite the assortment of whimsical chapeaus resting precariously on the crowns of Hepburn, Dunne, Lombard, Stanwyck, Shearer, Fontaine, Margaret Sullavan, Jean Arthur, Edith Oliver, et al. So amusing!

    I’m so excited – my housemate just picked up a DVD of Penny Serenade at Wal-mart for 99 cents! How appropro! So I get to wallow soon. It does my Hollywood heart good to dip into that sentimental slop I love so much.

  2. red says:

    I know – look at her hat!!! It’s like she is about to poke his eye out!

    Ahhh, Penny Serenade – I just love that movie – even though their little adopted girl is so disgustingly sweet that I develop diabetes during the running time of the film.

    I love their courtship scenes – when they go to the beach, the fortune cookies, the new year’s eve party … Irene Dunne and Cary Grant were just so good together.

  3. red says:

    stevie – member the hat Katherine Hepburn wore in the nightclub scene in Bringing Up Baby – when he trips on the olive? It’s this weird kind of mesh thing, that emanates out from her head … clipped onto the back … and there’s a shiny ribbon along the bottom … But since it’s mesh, you can barely see it.

    Do you know the one I’m talking about?

    I love that choice – because it is a positively USELESS “hat” – it’s basically a see-through piece of material pinned to the back of her head – and it gives her such a silly silly (and yet adorable) appearance.

  4. Stevie says:

    YES! I remember that hat! Hahahahaha! Just hilarious. There was a real Freudian thing going with those crazy hats, like they were thought balloons or something.

  5. red says:

    thought balloons! hahahaha

    I wonder if the silly hats are a message – kind of a stylistic message: Do not take anything too seriously here.

    And the men are pretty much dressed conventionally throughout these movies – but the women flutter around like thoughtless birds. It’s like the hats are wings, she’s about to ascend and fly off forever!

  6. Stevie says:

    That’s totally it – birds! Avian by Adrian!

  7. Kate says:

    Another moment I loved is toward the beginning of the film. At their house, when she’s just come home and he thought he’d find her there, waiting for him. There are other guests there, who have been clocking the both of them, seeing how they’re going to handle things. And Irene Dunne says something like, “I feel just terrible. You’re probably bored to death.” And one of the several kick-ass supporting players–not the Aunt, but someone with equally great timing and vocal quality–says, “Oh we’re NOT bored.” So funny to me.

    And oh my God, the DANCE! Between her and Ralph Bellamy, which Cary Grant makes her do again by paying off the orchestra. Hysterical.

    And do you remember the way Ralph is looking at the singer when she finishes singing “My hopes are GONE with the wind!” Totally glazed, horny, and vacant look. Really weird.

    Thank you, Sheila.

  8. red says:

    Oh my God, that floozy singer!!! hahahaha Ralph Bellamy is so awesome. I love how Cary Grant, after hearing about 2 bars of her awful song, says something to Irene Dunne like: “I barely know her.”

    Yes, and the dance. Irene Dunne bobbing around, embarrassed … hahaha … but against her better wishes, she kind of gets into it… but all along, she’s just aware that she is being laughed at by her husband.

    I love that shot of Cary Grant watching them, when he moves his chair to get a better view. He is looking right at the camera, beaming right at us, completely enjoying the moment. I’ve read a couple of different analyses of that film, and all of them say that it is probably that moment, above all others, that made him a star. Which is so itneresting, because he’s looking right at us – it’s like he’s sharing the joke specifically with us, and that’s so much of Cary Grant’s appeal!

  9. Hank says:

    I bought this a while ago after reading your various entries on Cary Grant but haven’t watched
    it yet. After reading that dialogue, the wife and I are definitely seeing it this friday evening.

    For improvised dialogue, it’s incredible.

    Regards, Hank

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