irene dunne

Irene Dunne – ‘She longed to be called baby’ – Episode 19

Irene Dunne was the queen of melodrama, comedy and musicals, a leading lady adored by all and seen by female audiences as an ‘every woman’. Many critics over the years have labelled Irene as either the ‘female Cary Grant’ or the refined lady who excelled in maternal roles. We at Any Ladle’s Sweet beg to differ and offer a more nuanced view of this deeply funny lady who always longed to be called ‘baby’. We discuss 3 of her finest roles: Ann Vickers (1933, Theodora Goes Wild (1936), and Unfinished Business (1941).

Ann Vickers (1933). Dir. John Cromwell [DVD] RKO Pictures.

Basinger, J. (2007) The Star Machine. New York: Vintage.

Bawden, J. and Miller, R. (2016) Conversations with Classic Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Bogdonovich, P. (1997) Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors. New York: Ballantine.

Carman, E. (2016) Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Douglas, M. (1986) See You at the Movies: The Autobiography of Melvyn Douglas. (with Tom Arthur) Lanham: University Press of America.

Gehring, W.D. (2006) Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

McCourt: J. (1980) ‘Irene Dunne: The Awful Truth’ Film Comment 16.1 pp. 26-32.

Theodora Goes Wild (1936) Dir. Richard Boleslawski [YouTube] Columbia Pictures.

Unfinished Business (1941) Dir. Gregory La Cava [YouTube] Universal Studios.


The Melodramas Part 1: John M. Stahl – From Back Street to Heaven – Episode 11

Episode 11! Part 1 of a 2 part series on the melodramas of the ’30’s and ’50’s starting with the films of John M. Stahl. Stahl directed some of the most popular films of the romantic melodrama genre through the 1930’s, some of which would go on to be remade in glorious technicolor by Douglas Sirk in the 1950’s. He was forgotten in film history for many decades mostly due to the lack of availability of any decent prints. A resurgence of interest in his work was sparked by the Universal Pictures under Laemmle Jr retrospective in MoMA last year. For the first time since their release audiences were able to experience the pristine and slow burning beauty of Stahl’s films, where women were the centre of action and interest.

We also discuss the other forgotten man of that time, Laemmle Jr.

Charles Boyer is discussed in loving detail in our He’s a Keeper segment.

The Melodramas Part 1: John M. Stahl – From Back Street to Heaven – Episode 11 by Any Ladle’s Sweet

Episode 11! Part 1 of a 2 part series on the melodramas of the ’30’s and ’50’s starting with the films of John M. Stahl. Stahl directed some of the most popular films of the romantic melodrama genre through the 1930’s, some of which would go on to be remade in glorious technicolor by Douglas Sirk in the 1950’s.

An Affair to Remember (1957) Dir. Leo McCarey [YouTube] Twentieth Century Fox.

Back Street (1932) Dir. John M Stahl [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

Back Street (1941) Dir. Robert Stevenson [Daily Motion] Universal Pictures.

Bawden, J. and Miller, R. (2016) ‘Interview with Irene Dunne’ in Conversations with Classic

Film Stars: Interviews from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Gaslight (1944) Dir. George Cukor [DVD] Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941) Dir. Mitchell Leisen [DVD] Paramount Pictures.

Imitation of Life (1934) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Le Bonheur (1934) Dir. Marcel L’Herbier [Internet Archive] Universal Pictures.

Liliom (1934) Dir. Fritz Lang. [YouTube] Fox Film Corporation/ Fox Europa.

Love Affair (1939) Dir. Leo McCarey [YouTube] RKO Pictures.

Magnificent Obsession (1935) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.

Only Yesterday (1933) Dir. John M Stahl [YouTube] Universal Pictures.

Swindell, L. (1983) The Reluctant Lover: Charles Boyer. New York: Doubleday.

The Earrings of Madame de … (1953) Dir. Max Ophüls [DVD] Gaumont (France)Arlan (US).

When Tomorrow Comes (1939) Dir. John M Stahl [DVD] Universal Pictures.…/#.V69xApgrKM9…irks-interlude/…carl-lammle-jr/

Closing music from Where Does Love Go (1966) ‘La Vie En Rose’ sung by Charles Boyer


Scene Dweller #9: ‘The nearest thing to heaven’ Charles Boyer v Cary Grant

#9: ‘The nearest thing to heaven’ Charles Boyer v Cary Grant

Delmar Daves and Donald Ogden Stewart’s script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (’39) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (’57), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich affective panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

Deborah Kerr, as Terry McKay, settles alone on a sofa with a book when Grant turns up at her door. Cary Grant paces Terry’s flat like he owns the place, trying to dominate the space and overwhelm the supine lady under a blanket. Aggrieved and bitter, Grant’s crabby demeanour casts a gloomy lover’s reunion. He’s sarcastic with those little huh-huh- huh exhalations that call the lady out as a liar, one who’s not to be trusted. The old ‘will he slap or kiss her?’ tone from a spurned lover holds limited appeal in a woman’s picture. Ham-fisted actors such as Spencer Tracy and Fredric March use glib anger as their default setting for any blip in what they anticipate as a plot’s romantic trajectory. When a lady fails to behave as expected, they embroil an angry attitude—a choice that just seems like a lazy response to affairs of the heart. How did women tolerate playing next to men who acted hell-bent on socking them when it was time for a tête-à- tête? More to the point, an irascible stance indicates a coward. If you just smother a range of emotional responses with hot-headed shorthand for masculinity, women in the audience know they’re sold a cheap bill of goods. Grant apologists might argue that he plays the scene in this manner in order to create dramatic tension for the unravelling, when he realises the truth about why she didn’t keep their rendezvous. In other words, Grant sets himself up to be the bad guy so we develop more empathy for Deborah Kerr’s character. But Grant’s reaction to the painting in her bedroom, which identifies Kerr as a poor woman in a wheelchair, belies a promise of emotional crescendo in the moment.


When Grant opens the bedroom door and sees his own painting, his reaction conveys a fatal flaw: he not only looks away and closes his eyes, he keeps them shut for a few seconds, as if to demonstrate that he can’t bear the sight of Terry’s misfortune. He protects himself from her pain with his eyes shut tight. Women in the audience should object to Grant’s refusal to witness Terry’s plight. A measure of pure vanity, Grant’s closed-eye response makes what happened to Terry all about him, which by the way remains anathema to the spirit of woman’s pictures. Viewers are robbed of the scene’s emotional veracity. Grant denies us the spectacle of male emotion; instead of empathy for Terry’s anguish or an expression of remorse for his selfish behaviour, he avoids it lids down, an inconstant lover’s ploy. He rushes through reaction and moves out of the bedroom in a hasty manner. The whole segment in Terry’s bedroom passes in less than twenty seconds. Even though An Affair to Remember runs thirty minutes longer than the original, the final scene’s truncated form feels like a cheat.


Charles Boyer, by contrast, offers a revelation in display of male emotion. Boyer’s stalwart performances in woman’s pictures exist without true rival. (Be sure to listen back to Ep. 11 when he’s featured in our He’s a Keeper spotlight.) When Boyer enters Irene Dunne’s modest flat, he looks wistful. Boyer’s not angry; he’s gutted. Clearly, he still loves her. He doesn’t want to hide behind wounded pride. His eyes stay riveted on Dunne’s Terry McKay, and slide down covertly to her legs as a signal that he realises what prevented Terry from keeping their date on top the Empire State building. Boyer’s eyes are as expressive as any of the grand dames of the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he knew how to draw viewers in with them, rather than rely on scenery chewing or physical distraction.


In the lady’s bedroom, when he looks at the painting, Boyer’s face registers a full array of reactions to what must have happened to Terry. He has difficulty swallowing. Boyer’s emotional spectrum includes shock, remorse, shame, guilt, empathy and deep regret for her suffering. His eyes flutter and we can see that he’s chastened for thinking of himself, for being petty and self-absorbed when Terry couldn’t walk. Boyer’s head issues a bare suggestion of a shake from side to side in self-recrimination. We can hear his thoughts. ‘You fool!’ he thinks. ‘She was stuck in a chair—alone!’ Waves of emotion stir across his face. Since Terry had been brave and soldiered on, he would bear it. Head on. Eyes open. He’ll be present for Terry. Boyer contemplates Terry’s fate for nearly 45 seconds without flinching or shielding himself from the truth about her injury. He isn’t afraid to have and show feelings. When Dunne as Terry tells him she was struck down while looking up at the top floor where they were to meet and adds ‘it was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.’ We can only agree through tears: ‘you said it, sister.’

love affair

The final scene in Love Affair –

The final scene in An Affair to Remember –

NEXT >> #10 Women in work – private worlds (’35)

Scene Dwellers – #8: Life fails to imitate art in Back Street (’32)

#8 Life fails to imitate art in Back Street (’32) [episode 11]

When it comes to female alienation, director John M. Stahl rivals Nathaniel Hawthorne in facility with piercing depictions of heroines made scapegoat for an affair that society codes illicit. In Back Street (’32), Irene Dunne’s character Ray Schmidt escapes the scarlet letter branding of Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne, but nonetheless endures a status of pilloried outcast. Furthermore, unlike Hester, Ray lacks a daughter to mitigate the wretched loneliness of her social oblivion. Both pariahs, Scarlet and Ray conduct a meagre living in the margins, as phantoms of their community.


Initially, Ray seems light years ahead of the stultifying Puritan customs which dictated Hester’s exile. She drinks beer, dances with multiple suitors and generally does what she pleases. She falls for Walter (John Boles), a married man, and doesn’t blink before agreeing to let him pay to keep her in a walk-up flat. Tucked away like a dirty secret, Ray’s supposed ‘love nest’ soon grows into a prison cage.

A central scene in Back Street highlights an incongruity between Ray’s romantic ideal and reality. Airless, dingy and hemmed in by cacophonous building works, Ray’s joyless hovel generates despair. Two portraits in the room magnify Ray’s counterfeit life as a kept woman. They’re not really portraits, they are—like everything else in the room—bargain derivatives of middle class décor. The tiny flat reeks of cheap reproductions and ramshackle furnishing, especially with prints mounted on the walls. In the background, on a wall next to the front door, a knockoff of a classical painting portrays an Arcadian idyll, with a couple posing on a fresh country road in a regency-era composition. The woman and man sport ornate apparel and exude devotion in what might easily represent the work of Edmund Blair Leighton, or another artist who traded upon saccharine themes of family life. Ray’s situation with a married man boasts no finery, easy walks in public or romantic display as rhapsodised in art. Ray’s civic life remains solitary and desolate. She’s relegated to the ‘back streets’ of Walter’s life.

Back Street 1932

On the wall behind the settee, a picture symbolises everything Ray might have expected from her position, yet never experiences. The framed print renders a cossetted woman, one whose dress creates such an enormous spread that it produces a cushioning or pillow effect. She looks pampered, spoilt, and well-heeled sitting on plush tiers of luxuriant fabric. Ray’s circumstances resemble no degree of affluence. After Ray learns that she’s not part of the ‘we’ Walter includes on a surprise holiday to Europe, her stricken face registers only an initial measure of indignity she knows as mistress. Later, Ray conceals hardship under a brave face when he eventually returns a month late, having made no arrangement for her subsistence during his absence. Desperate to pay bills, Ray scrapes by selling pottery she paints by hand. Walter just simply forgot about Ray’s basic needs for survival that he had pledged to provide after she gave up a lucrative job to be at his beck and call. Walter seems more horrified by the news that she took to something as tawdry as peddling ceramics, rather than the fact that she may have been homeless or starved to death because of his thoughtlessness.


When his son (William Bakewell) changes tact and refrains from berating Ray, he appears visibly astonished at the $200 a month pittance that his father settled on Ray, which illustrates how little Walter thought of the so-called love of his life. Even worse, he made no provision for her when he died. Cheap pictures on the wall remind viewers how handily romantic sentiment translates into shabby treatment for a mistress. Instead of regarding the ‘kept woman’ theme popular in the Pre-Code era as a means for social mobility, erotic adventure, proto-feminist message, or wiseacre hijinks, Stahl explores a more likely naturalistic angle of how women readily consign themselves to the void when they surrender everything in the name of love. Romantic motifs often become serviceable to women’s erasure in the public sphere, as Stahl’s bleak realism demonstrates.



Scene Dwellers – #6 When Tomorrow Comes

#6 Exploitation and rebellion in When Tomorrow Comes (’39) [episode 11]

When Tomorrow Comes (’39) opens with whispers among wait staff for the time and location of a secret union meeting vote on whether to call a strike against their employer, Karb’s, a cafeteria franchise in New York City. In the next scene, set during the meeting, women appear thrown in sharp relief, in contrast with the regulation waitress uniform.


Viewers don’t register the full measure of Karb’s uniform until we see what the women assembled for industrial action look like in their own clothes. Repeat the restaurant scene for a revelatory gander at a wretched, demeaning garment. Women who work under precarious, hardscrabble conditions seem further belittled by a uniform that infantilises. Karb’s ticks every box of nursery fashion: giant four-fold hair bow; a puerile gingham print; hyper-puffy sleeves; a useless, sheer apron tied in back to bustle effect; moreover, although we don’t see their feet for long, they seem to be shod in white toddler kicks and ankle socks. Karb’s invites patrons to exercise a Lolita-fetish over a blue plate special. Not satisfied with blatant exploitation of their wait staff by docked wages for broken dishes, paid spies to keep employees under surveillance, or ignored complaints about sex-pest customers, the hash house management mocks women’s labour and dignity outright through a ridiculous uniform. They take no such scornful liberties with the bus boy’s required ensemble, it’s worth noting, which looks as though it could serve as gear for hospital orderlies, milk men, barbers, or many other respectable jobs performed by adult men.


Unity Hall, crammed full of women in pursuit of justice, provides an opportunity for a thrilling spectacle for both the potential of self-expression through style and collective action. Vera West and Orry-Kelly produce an exquisite line up of working women’s fashion. With so much chic eye candy on display, the scene demands numerous rewinds. Clad in various conceptions of muliebrity’s design, the waitresses manifest creativity, probity, and sartorial acumen. On a tight budget, women who can expect, as Irene Dunne’s character notes ‘a plug nickel’ for a tip, meagre wages nonetheless turn themselves out with flair. A duplicate hat doesn’t materialise among their crowd. Verily, women at the time augmented a limited wardrobe with fresh collars and cuffs, as made evident in the scene. Collars trimmed with pinking shears, or embellished with scalloped edges, a zig-zag design complement dresses, blouses and skirt suits. Flashy buttons liven up an otherwise staid frock. Jaunty floral, geometric or whimsical patterns offer distinction to women who feel hard done by or lost on social ladder.

The waitresses have material needs that make a strike risky. Individually, they rise from seats to worry over sick mothers, caring for children and grandchildren, spouses killed in previous labour negotiations, fear of unemployment, lost wages, layoffs, handsy customers—a full barrage of grievances against their employer..

— What chance have we got? A bunch of girls against a strong outfit like Karb’s?

— We ain’t a bunch of girls. We’re a union standing together.


Because it’s a woman’s picture, the male union delegate fails to rouse strike consensus—that’s left to Irene Dunne. Her barn-burner includes a golden nugget of feminist wisdom: ‘But we want the right to stand on our own feet. To enjoy life. To feel like free human beings. And you just can’t go on hoping for those things’. If Dunne’s speech isn’t enough to garner a fist pump or lighter flick, perhaps the scene’s ending, where Charles Boyer puts the swoon atop the triumph of watching ladies ripe to raise Cain. Boyer’s unbridled enthusiasm for Dunne’s address supplies what we seldom see onscreen—a man who admires a woman for what she says and does, rather than her appearance.

— You were superb! I’ve never heard anything like it! You were marvellous. Simply marvellous! You were wonderful […] I’ve never met a woman before who could make speeches, call strikes, make pancakes and look beautiful all at the same time.


Boyer’s aspect signifies awe and respect much more than the throwaway bit about her beauty at the end. He’s sighworthy in his praise for Dunne. Even though the room buzzes around them, their shared recognition mutes the squall of protest, so that their locked eyes spark a charge between them, which arrests the nascent picket line. When love sweeps you up, nothing else—however important—matters in comparison. Everything recedes, cast to periphery.