The new three Irene Dunne films from the WB Archive Collection certainly feel like they were unearthed from an archive after long decades of neglect. Chintzy packaging and a complete lack of special features—when you put one in your DVD player the only option on the only menu is “play movie”—are grim warnings of what can be expected. The transfers of the films themselves are even more disheartening: subpar audio, deteriorated film reels, and 80 years’ worth of scratches and pockmarks. The only allure these releases could have would be for Dunne completionists. And even completionists might have reservations watching these.
The three films come from the era before Hollywood discovered Dunne’s knack for comedic repartee where she reigned as one of the queens of the weepies and musicals. Having honed her skills on Broadway for almost a decade, Dunne arrived in Tinsel Town in 1930 skilled in subdued melodrama and musical theater. Her greatest success before Leo McCarey immortalized her as a comedienne opposite Cary Grant in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) came in the form of James Whale’s adaptation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s hit musical Show Boat (1936) where she had equal opportunities to sing to the rafters and sob for the cheap seats in the lead role of Magnolia Hawks, one she had previously performed during the musical’s first road tour. None of the three films released by the WB Archive Collection hold a candle to any of these triumphs. Indeed, they either see Dunne’s multiple talents cordoned off from each other or underplayed.
The first and by far the weakest of the three is Paul Sloane’s Consolation Marriage (1931), a melodramatic tear-jerker with the nerve to use Brahms’ Lullaby as its main theme. A film of silence and restraint, Consolation Marriage can be obnoxiously quiet and understated with long pauses, candlelit discussions between upset lovers, and softly sweet restaurant rendezvous. But this isn’t the calculated silence of master filmmakers, this is the silence that arises from a script that has too little to say and actors with too little to do. In addition to the aforementioned Dunne completionists, the only people who might find the film interesting are Hollywood Pre-Code scholars intrigued by its rather audacious plot: two spurned lovers on the rebound, Mary Brown Porter (Dunne) and Steve “Rollo” Porter (Pat O’Brien), enter into an open marriage. The very illegitimacy of their arrangement marks the fulcrum of the film’s drama, something completely unthinkable in the era of the Hollywood Production Code. But Sloane fails to fully explore his set-up without relying on tired story beats involving the return of lost paramours. For an 80 minute film, there’s only enough interesting material for maybe 45-50 of them.
Though the second film, John Cromwell’s Ann Vickers (1933), is perhaps objectively better made than Consolation Marriage, it made me more angry. An adaptation of the eponymous novel by Pulitzer and Noble Prize winning author Sinclair Lewis, Ann Vickers is a 76-minute neutering of a 500+ page story of an independent woman who juggles her desires for social reform and personal happiness. Like many of Lewis’ female protagonists, Ann Vickers is a tough, idealistic working woman constantly meeting roadblocks due to her sex, political views, and societal close-mindedness. The novel deals with Ann’s getting a job in a women’s prison, becoming famous for her investigative journalism on the prison’s miserable conditions, and her extra-martial affairs and pregnancies.
But Cromwell’s film defangs Lewis’ political rabble-rousing in favor of a story more palatable for conservative audiences: her suffragette work in the novel is ignored and only referenced in a single throwaway line; Ann loses her first pregnancy to a miscarriage instead of an abortion; her affair with judge Barney Dolphin (Walter Huston) is changed so it isn’t adulterous; it’s implied that all her success as an investigative journalist and prison reformer was due to Dolphin working behind the scenes. Ann Vickers is changed from a modernist woman with her own agency to a wannabe housewife with a bleeding heart and an overabundance of can-do pluck. The one thing I can’t fault Ann Vickers for is Dunne’s performance. Some might find it blank or absent, but in my personal opinion it embodies the kind of dreamy wistfulness that circled just below the surface of Lewis’ female heroines, particularly Carol Milford from his masterpiece Main Street.
The third and best film of the bunch is Mervyn LeRoy’s Sweet Adeline (1934), a backstage musical set in the 1890s that sees Dunne as a reluctant beer-garden singer turned Broadway star. In addition to LeRoy’s snappy direction and Sol Polito’s acrobatic cinematography, Sweet Adeline is the best of the three because it finally gives Dunne the chance to properly show off the range of her talents. The centerpiece of the film are the lavish Busby Berkeley style dance routines at the end where geometric patterns of dancers intertwine, cavort, and shimmer in lavish gowns and suits. Truth be told, the dancing isn’t so much dancing as it is synchronized walking, but the sheer spectacle manages to dazzle. The film’s aggressive inoffensiveness and quaint light comedy might off-put some modern viewers, particularly Hugh Herbert’s turn as a doofy fool who spends half the time supporting the film’s undeveloped espionage sub-plot and the other half doing undeveloped shtick.
Personally, Sweet Adeline is the only one of these three films I would recommend buying. The music and humor might be dated, but as an example of early Hollywood musicals it doesn’t disappoint. I can’t imagine any of these films getting Blu-ray releases in the future. But if they do, I hope the distributors have the kindness to restore them first.