Saturday, March 16, 2013

Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring and Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman by Dan Callahan

My love affair with biographies of film stars continues, with two biographies of two almost forgotten stars, Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck.

I know Irene Dunne from her work with Cary Grant - she appeared in two screwball comedies with him (The Awful Truth and My Favourite Wife) as well as one melodrama, Penny Serenade. If you haven't seen these films you should - they're fantastic and have aged a lot better than many movies from the '30s and early '40s. Dunne and Grant have fantastic chemistry and they play perfectly off each other, resulting in really entertaining films that sparkle with humour and wit. During the studio era, Dunne was one of Hollywood's biggest female stars and was loved by both critics and fans, receiving five Academy Awards and numerous glowing reviews. Despite this contemporary fame, only her Cary Grant films are easily available and Dunne has largely been forgotten in Hollywood history.

Wes D. Gehring's book is a loving portrayal of the life and times of Irene Dunne, from her early days growing up in Kentucky through her career, marriage and retirement. He quotes extensively from his personal interviews with Dunne as well as referring to other historical sources. In these pages, Dunne appears as an admirable person, a hard-working and talented singer and actress and a loyal and faithful wife. The thing is, while it's great that she was all of those things, none of them are particularly interesting to read about! Any scandal, such as the rumours of Dunne's infidelity during the period her and her dentist husband Frank Griffin lived in different cities (her in Los Angeles and he in New York) or conflicts with studios over roles and typecasting, are quickly brushed past in favour of glowing accounts of Dunne's wonderful performances or virtuous charitable or admirable personal acts. This book is not a bad book but is only for hardcore Irene Dunne fans.

Barbara Stanyck is, without a doubt, one of my favourite Hollywood stars. I wrote my honours thesis on her and, even though I have watched her movies literally hundreds of time, I never tire of them. Like Dunne, Stanwyck was a huge star and was at one stage the highest paid female star in America. Also like Dunne, Stanwyck has largely faded from public consciousness, although her roles in classic films like Double Indemnity and Stella Dallas mean she's a favourite of critics and film students.

In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan makes an impassioned case for Stanwyck's position as a great Hollywood star. Starting from her birth as Ruby Stevens in 1907, Callahan describes her poor and tragic upbringing (her mother was killed in a traffic accident and her father abandoned Ruby and her brother and sister shortly afterwards, meaning Stanwyck spent much of her childhood moving from foster home to foster home) before beginning an exhaustive cataloguing of Stanwyck's films.

This, for me, was the biggest flaw of this book. Neither a strict biography nor an academic star study, Callahan draws direct parallels between the actions of Stanwyck's characters and her personal life. His detailed discussions of Stanwyck's films were written as if he had an omnipotent notion of how Stanwyck felt when making the movies. I found this incredibly irritating, which is really disappointing since I was really interested in Callahan's discussions of movies that are currently unavailable for general viewing or are impossibly hard to get access to. After what felt like the 100th reference to Ruby Steven's tragic past I couldn't take it anymore and returned the book to the library. This was a very disappointing experience.

I wouldn't recommend either of these books but reading them sparked a massive old-movie binge viewing fest but, since my disappointing reading experience sparked an excellent viewing experience, I'm not complaining very loudly.