Stream Leading Ladies (When There Were Leading Ladies) I

Irene Dunne

Theodora Goes Wild 1936 Directed by Richard Bowslawski. Sunday school teacher Theodora Lynn (Irene Dunn) has been raised in cloistered Lynnfield, Connecticut by two prudish spinster aunts. Though naïve and proper, she had sufficient imagination to write a bestselling romance novel under the pseudonym Caroline Adams. When her publisher inadvertently sells serialization to her town newspaper, the local literary society erupts. Theodora goes to New York and rages at publisher Arthur Stevenson (Thurston Hall). Suddenly she’s embarrassed about the writing.

While in the office, Arthur’s wife Ethel (Nana Bryant) and book cover illustrator Michael Grant (Melvyn Douglas) barge in determined to unmask the author. The four dine together promising to put “Caroline” on a train to her secret home, but Michael goads the defensive girl into inebriation, dancing, and stopping off at his apartment – from which she runs screaming. Next thing we know, he’s outside her house in Connecticut, then an acting gardener. You can see where this is going, but the actors are charming, dialogue light.

Prior to this, Dunne had been cast in dramatic films. The actress proved herself a natural comedienne. Rent on Netflix.

Love Affair 1939 Based on a story by Leo McCarey and Mildred Cram. Directed by Leo McCarey. This was the first version. Painter/infamous playboy Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) and singer Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) are passengers on a ship crossing from Europe. Michel is engaged to heiress Lois Clarke (Astrid Allwyn) who will support him in the manner to which he’s become accustomed. Terry is engaged to Kenneth Bradley (Lee Bowman), a wealthy businessman who’s given her the finer things, perhaps including an apartment. Both will be met upon arrival.

Terry and Michel are attracted, but it’s when he invites her to spend an afternoon with his elderly grandmother Janou (Maria Ouspenskaya – wonderful) that the pair realize they’ve fallen in love. Never having worked, Michel says he needs to find out if he can earn enough money to support a relationship. They make a date to meet atop the Empire State Building in six months time. He’s there, but tragedy prevents her appearance. The rest of the film concerns how they find one another again. Tender, poignant, sentimental. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Next came iteration #2- 1957’s  An Affair to Remember found in Streaming Deborah Kerr Then iteration #3- 1994’s Love Affair– skip it

My Favorite Wife 1940 An adaptation of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Enoch Arden.” Directed by Garson Kanin. It’s been seven years since Nick Arden’s (Cary Grant) wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) was lost at sea. Giving up, Nick has her declared dead and marries Bianca Bates (Gail Patrick). Ellen reappears…the night of Nick’s honeymoon. Thoroughly confused and much to the bride’s chagrin, he doesn’t consummate his marriage. Bianca sends for psychiatrist, Dr. Kohlmar (Pedro de Cordoba).

Things grow more complicated when it’s revealed that Ellen has been shipwrecked on an island with attractive Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott) who wants to marry her. Inadvertently a bigamist, Nick is taken to court, where… After the great success of The Awful Truth (rent on Amazon Prime) McCarey signed Cary Grant and Irene Dunne for the film without a script. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Penny Serenade 1941 can be found in Stream Films of Cary Grant

Life with Father 1947 Adapted from the 1939 play by Donald Ogden Stewart and Russel Crouse which in turn was based on the autobiography of stockbroker/New Yorker essayist Clarence Day. Directed by Michael Curtiz. Stockbroker Clarence Day (William Powell) likes his life just so, his children Clarence Day Jr. (Jimmy Lydon), John (Martin Milner), Whitney and Harlan clean and well behaved, his wife Vinnie (Irene Dunne) feminine and acquiescent. Of course, Vinnie knows how to make him think ideas are his when, in fact, she quietly keeps the family humming.

A slice of life look at the period and class: A new maid must be found, Clarence Jr. is besotted with visitor Mary Skinner (Elizabeth Taylor), Clarence Jr. and John try to sell medicines with questionable results, Vinnie wants her atheist husband to be baptized. Also with Edmund Gwen and Zazu Pitts. A lace valentine to far more genteel times, rather like The Magnificent Ambersons without that film’s high drama. Mr. Day’s frequent outbursts of “Oh, God!” were changed to “Oh, gad!” by Motion Picture Production Code officials. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Rosalind Russell

His Girl Friday 1940 Adapted from Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page, which had a male protagonist. Directed by Howard Hawks. Newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) is about to lose star reporter, ex-wife Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (Roz Russell) to marriage. Convinced her bland, insurance salesman fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Belamy) and life in the burgs can’t possibly make her happy, he gets her to agree to cover one last story, the execution of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a bookkeeper convicted of killing a cop.

In an interview with her, the timid civil servant protests he was framed. Hildy thinks she’s finished until Earl escapes and the scoop is too big to ignore. This is where real screwball comedy kicks in. Reporters, cops, Hildy’s mother-in-law-to-be (Alma Kruger), Earl’s friend Molly (Helen Mack), Bruce, Walter, the sheriff (Gene Lockhart) and a crooked mayor (Clarence Kolb) tear around the court house looking for the convicted man. Bribes are attempted, a gun awkwardly wielded, tears shed…headlines secured, careers resumed. A full fledged hoot.

Hawks encouraged his actors to be spontaneous resulting in a great deal of improvisation and multiple retakes. In her autobiography, Life Is A Banquet, Russell wrote that she thought her role didn’t have as many good lines as Grant’s, so she hired her own writer to “punch up” her dialogue.  Rent on Amazon Prime.

Auntie Mame 1958 Based on the Patrick Dennis novel and its theatrical adaptation by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. Directed by Morton DaCosta. Not to be confused with the film musical which you should decidedly avoid. When Patrick Dennis’ (Jan Handzlik) father dies in 1928, nanny Agnes Gooch (Peggy Cass) delivers the boy to his Auntie Mame (Roz Russell) on Sutton Place. Mame’s motto “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” says everything. She’s wildly bohemian. Patrick becomes the center of her otherwise hedonistic, aimless life.

The boy’s inheritance is controlled by conservative bank trustee, Dwight Babcock (pitch-perfect Fred Clark), who, like her deceased brother, disapproves of Mame’s lifestyle. Her choice of a school with eurhythmic nudity and Patrick’s learning to mix drinks is unacceptable to the executor. She loses everything (except the apartment) in the crash, and poignantly inept, tries several professions including a disastrous stage appearance with frenemy Vera Charles (Coral Browne). Courtly Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside (Forrest Tucker) comes into her life while she’s selling at Macy’s.

Mame falls in love. She has to pass muster with Beauregard’s  staunchly traditional southern family and get past her wily female competition, however. Meanwhile Patrick (Roger Smith) attends a stiff boarding school and begins to morph into a mini Babcock. Both issues plus her adopted son’s dreadful fiancé  must be dealt with, not to mention consequences of Agnes’ living life to the fullest. Quick, funny, warm and timeless. A tonic for the present. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Top photo: Rosalind Russell (left) and Irene Dunn – wikipedia/publicity photos in the public domain

About Alix Cohen (872 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.