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What’s Done is “Dunn” – Dental Love Story 2

Jul 13, 2016

By Dean George

Last week we wrote about how Irene, a small town Indiana girl with aspirations of becoming an opera singer, transitioned to becoming a musical actress on and off Broadway.

Irene was regularly starring in musical roles on a regular basis but was prepared to walk away from the theater at the request of her fiancé, Dr. Frank Griffin, DDS.  Dr. Griffin was attracted to Irene, but as for show business – not so much. As we quoted him in last week’s post, “I didn’t like the moral tone of show business.” 

Irene reluctantly relented to his request, the couple married and after touring Europe the newlyweds returned to New York City where Dr. Griffin maintained his successful dental practice across from Grand Central Station.

It was the first day back from her honeymoon that Irene had a chance encounter in an elevator that would change her and Frank’s life forever.  

A Woman’s Work is Never Dunne

As Irene told Picturegoer in 1945, she was wearing a new blue hat when she found herself in the same elevator as Florenz Ziegfeld of the Ziegfeld Follies.

Ziegfeld was putting together a cast for the musical Show Boat and minutes after leaving Irene in the elevator he sent an employee to chase down, “that woman in the blue hat.”

Thrilled at the opportunity of playing the lead role of Magnolia Hawks, Irene knew she had to convince her show biz disapproving husband of her desire to take the part and continue her career. To her surprise, “his smile when I told him was as brilliant as my hope.”

Irene’s delightful performance in the traveling Show Boat musical led to a movie contract with RKO and her first movie in 1930, Leathernecking. Movie critics hated it, and Irene said she was close to returning to New York City and the stage when she learned of a leading role in a movie called Cimmaron.

The film’s producers were aghast when she expressed interest in the role. Irene’s previous roles had all revolved around musical comedies and the Cimmaron role was a dramatic part. That made no difference to the small town girl who really wanted that role.

If You Want a Thing Dunne Well…

Frank realized how much Irene wanted it because as she recounted years later, it was the first, and only time in her career, that he helped Irene cue her lines. “The Sunday before the test he renounced his golf to cue me in my lines and spent the entire day watching me weep through the part,” she laughingly told Picturegoer.

The unique “dental consultation” must have worked because Irene was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar in only her second film, the first of five Academy Award nominations she received over her illustrious career.

The Cimmaron role opened the door for other dramatic roles in the 1930’s (Back Street and Magnificent Obsession) before she returned to musicals like Sweet Adeline and Show Boat.

It was in the 1930’s that a playful Irene displayed her comedienne chops in movies like Theodora Goes Wild (1936), The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940).

Well Dunne!

Irene earned her second Academy Award nomination for Theodora Goes Wild and her third the following year in The Awful Truth with Cary Grant. Her fourth Academy Award nomination came when she played opposite Charles Boyer in the 1939 drama, Love Affair.

During this very busy time, Frank and Irene maintained a bicoastal marriage as Frank continued working his New York City dental practice while Irene made 19 movies in just seven years. In 1936, Irene built a home in upscale Holmby Hills west of Los Angeles and Frank joined her in Hollywood.

By 1938, Frank retired from his dental practice altogether with the intention of helping manage Irene’s business affairs. Irene was reportedly making $150,000 per movie in 1938.  Within months though, Frank learned that performing root canals and maintaining a successful dental practice didn’t necessarily translate into managing a successful Hollywood career.

Like the famous phrase another Hollywood legend voiced years later, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

“I never lost my identity – only some of my ego,” Frank told The Boston Globe in 1958 while discussing how to maintain a successful marriage to a “career woman.”

During that same interview Frank shared his personal thoughts about his early resistance to Irene’s career choice. “Although she was a star, I was never impressed with her talent. Then Ziegfeld signed her for Show Boat and it looked like she was due for big things,” he said.

“Next came Hollywood and Cimarron. She was catapulted to the top,” he said. “Then I didn’t feel I could ask her to drop her career. If she didn’t have talent, I would have.”

For Irene’s fans its a good thing Frank chose dentistry as a career rather than working as a talent scout.

The year 1938 was a big one for Frank and Irene for another reason. That year, they adopted a four-year-old girl from New York City, Mary Frances, who they nicknamed “Missy.”

Irene’s uncanny ability to shift effortlessly between film genres allowed her to return to drama roles in the 1940’s, teaming with Cary Grant (Penny Serenade), Spencer Tracy (The White Cliffs of Dover), Rex Harrison (The King of Siam) and William Powell (Life with Father).   

The versatile actress never did win an Oscar, although many thought she should have for her final Academy Award nominated movie, 1948’s I Remember Mama. At some point during this time she acquired the nickname, “The First Lady of Hollywood.”

No Harm Dunne

During this time Frank realized there was only so much golf a man could play so he began dabbling in real estate, stocks and bonds. He sat on the board of directors of several banks and partnered with other family members on a company manufacturing diesel engines and other business interests.

Socially, Frank and Irene weren’t big on Hollywood parties. They preferred playing golf, reading, traveling and visiting with a small circle of friends that included actor Jimmy Stewart and his wife Gloria, comedian Bob Hope and his wife Delores, and actress Loretta Young.

Irene made another change in the 1950’s, quietly drifting away from film acting in 1952 to make the occasional television appearance. More importantly to her, she focused extensively on charity fundraising and the civil causes she had been participating in since the 1940’s.

Her Catholic faith was important to her and she worked tirelessly raising funds for a wide range of causes, including more than $20 million for the former St. John’s Roman Catholic Hospital, now the Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Her good work lives on today, with sizeable donations in 2014 and 2015 to the John Wayne Cancer Institute and a Safe Patient Handling & Mobility Program. 

In 1957, Irene took on a completely different role when she was appointed as alternate delegate to the United Nations by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1959, the actress that had surprised many with her prowess in tackling dramatic roles, had this to say about being a cast member in the big show United Nations:

“The most dramatic thing I’ve ever experienced was my year with the United Nations. Meeting all those people from every nation on earth was fascinating. Their problems and goals in life are so immediate and arresting it makes you realise [sic] you’ve never known human drama before.”

The Massachusetts dentist and Indiana actress have long since passed, but Frank Griffin, DDS, had this to say about being happily married to Irene Dunne for 37 years:

“A successful marriage is a partnership with both partners working towards a common goal. I really didn’t think marriage and the stage were compatible, but we loved each other and we were both determined to make our marriage work.”

Thanks for reading, and whether you aspire to be a famous actress or a successful dentist, following us on FacebookTwitterPinterestGoogle+, or LinkedIn can’t hurt.


Copyright 2016, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC

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