Most of you have never heard of Irene Dunne. You all have heard of Lucille Ball, of course. What if I told you that if there hadn’t been an Irene Dunne, there would not have been a Lucy, at least not the actress/character who we all remember today. It was by Dunne’s performance as her co-star in in a film called Joy Of Living that Lucille Ball was inspired to create the character that would be Lucy. You see, Irene Dunne was the original master of the ditzy screwball comedic character that we all associate with Lucy. KL Studio Classics have brought us two of Irene Dunne’s films. When Dunne left acting, she devoted herself to international causes and was selected by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as an official delegate to the United Nations. Her acting career included three films, each with Cary Grant and Charles Boyer. She’s an actress who never quite held up over the years, but she should have. She was nominated five times for an Oscar but never ended up taking one home. Thanks to these two releases from KL Classics, you get to see a couple of her lesser-known works.
High, Wide And Handsome (1937)
“I’m sorry to see that the tune of this here gathering ain’t as high as we like to keep it in our sociables around here.”
The film began life with a little controversy over names. Oscar Hammerstein wrote the songs and much of the music for the film. Everyone knows who he is, and his Broadway credits are too many to mention here. Who is not so well known is Oscar Hammerstein I. He was the famous guy’s grandfather. He was most noted for inventing a cigar-rolling machine and used his wealth from that invention to open theaters for the kind of shows his grandson would become famous for. But the film’s opening title card credits the story by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. His widow sued to correct any chance of confusion between the two. The rest of the film’s credits use the correct form of the name. Unfortunately, the judge threw out the lawsuit, and the mistaken credit remains in the film to this day.
The film starts in Titusville, PA where Doc Watterson’s Medicine Show has rolled into town. The show burns down amid the town’s fury for “rock oil”. Grandma Cortlandt (Patterson) takes in Doc (Walburn) and his daughter, Sally (Dunne). Her grandson Peter, played by Randolph Scott, is pretty much the leader of this movement to find oil on the failing farms. He’s also taken with Sally, and they marry. The oil comes in, but a lot of the corporate magnates don’t want to share the wealth with these newly “rich” farmers. The railroad tycoon Walt Brennan (Hale) demands their land in return for taking the oil to market. Peter decides to fight the powerful monopoly and starts to build a pipeline to deliver the oil. The problem is, you can’t protect miles of pipe 24 hours a day. Brennan hires thugs to rip the pipeline apart and buys the loans the farmers took to build the pipeline. Now they have a time limit. One minute later, and Brennan calls in the loans and gets the property and the oil.
It’s typical “little guy taking on the big guys and finding a way to win in the end”. There’s a lot of chemistry between Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne, and he would later call him the best leading lady he ever worked with. It all shows on the film, to be sure.
The cast also includes some notable names. Alan Hale, Sr. plays the bad guy Walt Brennan. You likely know his son better. He was the Skipper on the television series Gilligan’s Island. Dorothy Lamour has a small part in the film, and she’s been in a ton of things you’d know. Horror fans will remember her for Creepshow II, but she was often along for the ride with Bob Hope. She was a staple in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road films. Another Lucille Ball connection can be found here. William Frawley has a small part in the film. He would go on to play Fred Mertz, the landlord and close friend of the Ricardo’s.
Another item that hurt the film was its marketing budget. It was only released in a few select theaters and became what was once called a roadshow release. That meant the film would move from city to city for limited engagements. Where the film survived the longest was in universities around the country. Universal sold rights to the film to various engineering schools to show the film as part of their curriculum.
Lady In A Jam (1942)
“We don’t like to see our womenfolk crying around here.”
Lady In A Jam was actually shot under the title of The Sheltered Side and later The Sheltered Lady. It was the second collaboration between Irene Dunne and director Gregory LaCava after Unfinished Business. It was shot on location near the Superstitious Mountains in Arizona, a place I got to explore for myself some years back. It was a rather large-budget film for the times with a nine-day shoot and a cast of over 300 and a jewelry budget of $100,000. Unfortunately, the film was started with an unfinished script, and that leads to some awkward pacing in the final film.
Patric Knowles plays Doctor Enright, a psychiatrist who is very popular with the ladies. he is approached by Mr. Billingsley (Pallette) to help with his ward, Jane Palmer (Dunne). She has pretty much blown through her fortune and refuses to accept the reality of the situation. She still attempts to spend, but is thwarted by Billingsley. When her chauffeur quits, she tries to get her car out of a parking space, causing damage to the cars both in front of and behind her. Enright comes to her aid without revealing his real occupation or why he is there. He offers to replace the chauffeur and gets her safely away from the upset car owners and home where her belongings are being marked for auction. Enright seizes on one of her family stories to try to get her to stand up to reality. Her grandmother is in Arizona, where there was once a profitable goldmine.
Once there, Enright finds he has some immediate competition for Jane, with whom he has fallen in love, but is unwilling to say anything. Stanley Gardner is played by the wonderful Ralph Bellamy. He makes no secret that he intends to court the young lady as soon as she arrives. Jane asks Grandma, known in the area as Cactus Kate. Grandma refuses to give any money but encourages her to try to work the old, worn-out goldmine. She knows it’s useless, but she kind of sees the romance between the two and ends up salting the mine so Jane thinks she’s struck it rich. The little joke backfires on everyone when word gets out and a new gold rush crowds the once-small town. The rivalry leads to Stanley challenging Enright to a duel but is dissuaded when he finds out Enright is an expert marksman. When government agents arrive, Grandma is afraid it’s to charge her with fraud for salting the mines, particularly after Enright confronts her with the knowledge of what she did. It all ends happily ever after when the government’s true reason for being there is revealed, and Jane takes the bull by the horns and confronts Enright with their feelings.
Ralph Bellamy and Patric Knowles worked together a year earlier in The Wolf Man. Knowles played Andrews, Talbot’s rival for Gwen’s hand, and Bellamy plays police Col Montiford, who is tracking down the killer that Talbot’s Wolf Man persona has become. Bellamy’s off-key singing cowboy gets the most laughs in the film, and honestly, he steals every scene he’s in. It’s a side of the actor I never saw before. Not even his comedic evil nature in Trading Places. I am so happy I caught this role. You will be, too.
Irene Dunne is one of those early Hollywood performers who influenced what came later but never really gets much of the credit. These might not be her best films, but they’re both actually quite entertaining. It’s not for everyone, but give it a try. After all, “It takes all kinds of people to make a world.”