NEW YORK - Irene Dunne filled the screen like a good vintage champagne in a Baccarat crystal goblet.She was bubbly, of course. But like that fine champagne, hers were small, neat bubbles compacted with years of flavor and refined ever so to explode not all at once but slowly and smoothly and surely.
Dunne, 88, died Tuesday in her Los Angeles home. She was one of the last of that great breed of film actors who delighted generations with those romantic frolics known as screwball comedies.
Her portrayals were spontaneous, unexpected, flirty and winsome. They were tantalizing, frothy and intelligent. Above all, they were downright funny. She may have liked her dramatic roles more (``I Remember Mama,' ``Magnificent Obsession'), but comedy made her a legend.
She had an offhanded but charming way of delivering lines in a voice that sounded like sable brushing diamonds. Hers was not the clipped, patrician charm of Katharine Hepburn, or the coquettish zaniness of Carole Lombard. Her timing was better in a way. Ask her a question and she could say more with a turn of her head and a simple, ``Ahh,' than with a long answer or even a ``yes' or ``no.'
``Cary (Grant) paid me one of the loveliest compliments of my life,' she once remarked. ``He said I had the best timing of anyone he ever worked with. It must be something that comes naturally to you. My father had a keen sense of humor, which I think is different from having a sense of humor.'
Timing - and attitude.
``It's not that I'm prudish. It's just that my mother told me never to enter any man's room in months ending in 'r,' ' she tells Charles Boyer in ``Love Affair,' a 1939 movie later made into ``An Affair to Remember,' with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.
In ``The Awful Truth,' Leo McCarey's Academy Award-nominated crazy romp about a divorcing couple who scheme to get back together, Dunne (Lucy Warriner) turns the table on co-star Cary Grant (Jerry Warriner) in the classic Lola scene.
She shows up as Jerry's alleged stripper-sister, Lola, at a formal dinner party given by his terribly proper fiancee and her terribly proper family. With an outfit that would make a streetwalker proud, Dunne swings into a stripper number she had seen Jerry's girlfriend of the moment, Dixiebelle, perform in a nightclub. Dixiebelle had a fan blow her skirts above her head during certain lyrics in the song.
Lucy sings ``My Dreams Have Gone With the Wind' - and Dunne, who had a trained lyric soprano voice, butchers her singing talents in the most vulgar but funny ways:
``I used to dream about a cottage small
A cottage small by the waterfall
But I wound up with no dreams at all
My dreams have gone with the wind.'
There is no fan as Lucy performs the embarrassing number. Instead, she makes the wind sounds herself and spreads her legs apart. ``This song has some wind effects in it, but you'll just have to use your imagination about them,' she coos.
Earlier in the movie, Lucy and Jerry have a courtroom custody battle for their wire-haired terrier, Mr. Smith. Dunne, with an all-knowing and alluring smile at the judge, hides the dog's favorite squeaky toy in her fur muff. He runs to her to prove whom he prefers.
Love wins out, as it always does in these situations, despite Dunne's chilling promise to Grant: ``I wouldn't go on living with you if you were dipped in platinum.'
Dunne and Grant have another wonderful romp in Garson Kanin's ``My Favorite Wife,' in which Dunne returns home after being shipwrecked and presumed dead for a number of years. She's spent the time with Randolph Scott, and Grant has remarried.
``How long does it take to tell a woman, 'My wife's come back?' I can say it in two seconds. 'My wife's come back.' You've had two days,' she snaps at him.
She also asks, ``Oh, by the way, how was my funeral?'
But the urbane charms drop ever so slightly in ``Life With Father.' Here, Dunne is understanding, loving and the all-knowing wife to William Powell's irascible husband.
``You know,' Dunne tells Zasu Pitts in the movie, ``I don't believe Clare has come right out and told me he loves me since we've been married. 'Course, I know he does because I keep reminding him of it. You have to keep reminding them.'
Grant loved working with Dunne and once summed up the delightful effects of her performance: He called it a lovely flirtation.