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Irene Dunne on Broadway: How Her Star Power Went Beyond the Big Screen

By    |   Thursday, 14 May 2015 04:36 AM

Irene Dunne got her start in the entertainment industry on Broadway after attending Chicago Musical College with the hopes of becoming an opera singer. Yet, life had other plans and instead Dunne graced the stage, first in “The Clinging Vine” in 1922, and continued to perform until her first movie in 1930. Yet, her early movies were basically just Broadway performances for the silver screen.

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Here are five examples of Dunne’s Broadway prowess:

1. Tessie and Antoinette, “The Clinging Vine” (1922)

Dunne’s Broadway debut happened under strange circumstances. She was slated to play the lead role in “Lollipop,” but was pulled out of rehearsals to cover for an ailing Peggy Wood in another show, “The Clinging Vine.” Yet, it all worked out since her professionalism, “quiet confidence, [and] sense of humor” helped get her noticed by playwright Zelda Sears, the media, and her co-stars.

2. Diana and Mary, “Yours Truly” (1927)

Dunne proved her salt during this production, replacing lead Marion Harris about halfway through the shows run. Although not the opera, these early Broadway roles allowed Dunne to put her singing skills on display, too.

3. Polly, “She’s My Baby” (1928)

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This show had a short run, but it gave Dunne the opportunity to perform songs by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, including “If I Were You” and “You’re What I Need,” which earned her the praise, “A tricky ballad delivered effectively by Miss Irene Dunne and Mr. Jack Whiting” from the New York Herald Tribune.

4. Magnolia, “Show Boat” (1927)

This show earned Dunne a golden ticket into the film industry and is described by NPR’s Lloyd Schwartz as “the first great serious Broadway musical.” This role landed Dunne a contract with RKO studios and she was offered the lead again for the film adaptation of the story, which was released in 1936. This role was so beloved that it was also performed on Lux Radio Theater in 1940 as well. Schwartz described Dunne’s performance as “enchanting, and touching, even in a rather queasy number in blackface.”

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Irene Dunne got her start in the entertainment industry on Broadway after attending Chicago Musical College with the hopes of becoming an opera singer. Yet, life had other plans and instead Dunne graced the stage, first in "The Clinging Vine" in 1922.
irene dunne, broadway, tv, actress, movies
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