Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Feminist Flight: A Dunne Deal

James Cagney once praised Doris Day, his Love Me or Leave Me co-star, by saying she was such a good natural actress that it was almost subliminal.  I think the same applies to Irene Dunne.  Look at her performance as the grief-stricken World War II pilot in Victor Fleming's A Guy Named Joe.  In MGM's 1943 WWII fantasy romance, Spencer Tracy starred as an ill-fated, often grumpy bomber pilot who makes her heart take wing.
I've heard famous actors say that learning how to listen is a top skill to master in the craft of acting.  I've heard acting coaches say that in classes I've taken.  With that in mind, the last five minutes of Irene Dunne's performance in A Guy Named Joe are a master class in beautiful screen acting.  She listens to the spirit of the man she loved.  Her silence is golden.  It's a very difficult scene to play.  Just ask two-time Oscar winner Sally Field.  When she was a Guest Programmer one night with Robert Osborne on TCM, she mentioned Dunne's brilliance in this role.  You'd never know how difficult that final scene is when you see Dunne do it in Fleming's film.  She made it all look so easy.  Like Sally Field, I first discovered this film on KTTV/Ch. 11 in Los Angeles when I was a kid.  Local TV host Ben Hunter aired it as his afternoon movie.  I grew up hearing A Guy Named Joe described as a sentimental propaganda film, light fare from MGM to boost American morale during World War II.  It didn't get the same respect and reverence as, say, William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver, Best Picture of 1942 Oscar winner.  Greer Garson won Best Actress for playing the middle-class British housewife struggling to keep her home and garden together while the Nazis bombed England.  I still feel critics overlooked a heart of A Guy Named Joe and didn't fully appreciate the complicated feminist character Irene Dunne played.  Plus Dunne was again making great strides for Women in Film -- strides that would be impressive today.  And she usually wore fabulous hats while she strode.

Reportedly born in December 1898, Irene Dunne was still landing lead roles in good, hit dramatic love stories and romantic comedies in her late 30s to her mid-40s.  There was Invitation to Happiness (1939) with Fred MacMurray.  She did three with Charles Boyer:  Love Affair and When Tomorrow Comes (1939) plus Together Again (1944).  After The Awful Truth, she did two more with Cary Grant:  My Favorite Wife (1940) and Penny Serenade (1941).  Today, Oscar winning actresses like Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and even Sally Field could be so jealous of that.  Dunne defied Hollywood's notion of age for actresses.  In A Guy Named Joe, her character is romantically pursued by a new pilot played by Van Johnson.

The actor was well into his 20s.  Dunne was in her 40s.  She looked great opposite a big, young Johnson.  Both characters are serving overseas and in uniform.  Dorinda Durston obviously shattered a glass ceiling and was a welcomed addition to the G.I. Boys' Club.  Rarely did Hollywood show us women pilots in uniform.  in 1943's Flight for Freedom, there's Rosalind Russell as a lady flyer, an Amelia Earhart type, who flies a secret mission for the U.S.  But not in uniform.  Fred MacMurray played the pilot she loves.
Irene Dunne's character reminds us that women did serve during the war.  This MGM movie pilot is closer to a real-life WASP than any other lead film character of the 1940s.

The WASPs -- Women Airforce Service Pilots -- took the wheel of military aircraft.  They flew non-combat missions to free the men for combat mission duty.
In Dunne's first scene and in her final one, she's coming in for a landing.  True, like Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz, this is a sentimental fantasy.  But there's female power to this story that's too often ignored.  Just like in Oz.  You can view that iconic 1939 MGM musical as a feminist action/adventure.  Who really has all the power in that story?  The females:  There's Glinda the Good Witch, there's the Wicked Witch of the West and there's Dorothy as she wears the Ruby Slippers.  Back in Kansas, Auntie Em really runs the farm more than Uncle Henry does.  Mean old Miss Gulch, the woman who wants Toto destroyed, is the town's crankiest and most influential resident.   In The Wizard of Oz and A Guy Named Joe, we have a female who is airborne -- a female who is in danger of not returning safely home.

"You realize that you and I have never been up in a plane together?  Alone, I mean?"  That's what Dorinda says to the big lug she loves, Pete.
She is Pete Sandidge's match and his equal.  She proves that on a regular basis.  Dorinda can work Pete's last good male chauvinist nerve.  The squadron commander doesn't think women belong in the air.  He'll see that a woman can do a man's mission.  She's feminist and feminine.  Out of uniform and in "girl clothes," she whimsically bets that the kids they'd have would be cute.  "Not a brain in their heads, of course, but they'd have fun."  Their best friend Al Yackey (Ward Bond) describes the bickering love they have for each other as "slow poison."  What's that?  It's something you don't get over quickly and easily.  Al tells Pete it's "like a fever that aches in your bones for a thousand years."  We see the truth in Al's comment.  The strength of Pete and Dorinda's love lifts the veil between mortal life and the afterlife.

In foggy Scotland, Dorinda manages to catch a ride and flies in to surprise Pete.  While giving him a big hello hug, she sees an aircraft on the ground.  Through the fog, it's a somewhat ghostly image.  We see that the image upsets Dorinda.  "Pete, is that your plane?" she asks.  Dorinda puts on a happy face but she's had a premonition.  She confides to Al that Pete can't fly the mission even though he wants to because "his number's up."  For all the wisecracks and squabbles, Pete is the love of her life.  Her vulnerability pours out when they spend a night together and she can't convince him to take an assignment back in the States.  She worries about him so much it makes her sick inside.  She hates "...being afraid when a telephone rings.  Being afraid when it doesn't."  She calls him out on his "hero hunger" and being "a lone wolf in a service where men fly together."  When Pete realizes how worried Dorinda is, he decides to give in.
But there's something bigger than Pete, Al and Dorinda.  And she knows that.  They're in uniform.  They're over there to do a duty.  There's a war going on.  Evil forces are loose and devouring democracy.  They're fighting for freedom.  Al arrives with orders for Pete.  He's got to fly the mission. Nazi movement has been spotted.  With her arms around the pilot, Dorinda says "Oh, Pete.  We never seem to get a break, do we?"
The mission is accomplished, but Pete dies.  Dorinda's premonition was accurate.  In the Afterlife as written by Dalton Trumbo, there's still work to be done.  Heaven is devoid of harps and angels wings.  You don't automatically get a clean slate when you arrive.  There's a system of checks and balances.  You have to balance your karma.  Pete learns this from the no-nonsense, heavenly figure in charge.  Lionel Barrymore plays The General.  If Pete was a a lone wolf and a bit of a show off in life, his spirit must return to Earth as a helpful team player.  Sort of a guardian angel to new recruits.   Van Johnson is Ted, the new recruit whose skills as a pilot remind some of the late Pete Sandidge.  Dorinda is still actively in the service but her heart's in a fog of grief.  Months after Pete's crash, Al coaxes Dorinda to go out and be a part of life again.  Have fun.  The two friends hit a club.  There's music.  There's laughter.  And single men.  Who's in the same club?  Young Ted Randall -- with his guardian angel, Pete.  Dorinda and Pete are together again.  But she's unaware.  Jealous Pete watches as the young mortal falls for his girl.
This is where the Dorinda character gets complicated and Dunne raises the stakes on the performance.  She makes Dorinda a servicewoman at war with herself as she helps fight the war around her.  Ted loves her.  Yes, there's an age difference but it's irrelevant.  They're in a war, fighting on the same battlefield with similar skills.  They've been under attack. Those desperate times of life and death make his love for her more mature.  But Pete is still much more substantial to her than just a memory.  She loves Ted. He's proposed to her.  But he's ordered to fly a mission that's just as dangerous as Pete's final mission was.  Can she survive a possible new heartbreak?  Can Dorinda ever move on from the pain of losing Pete?  Or will she manipulate a combat mission for her own selfish, cowardly motives?  Will a deed many would call heroic and highly patriotic really be camouflage for a suicide?  Dorinda and Pete were never up a plane alone together when he was alive.  They are now.  This part soars with expert direction and fine acting.
Pete's spirit tries to get through to her mind as he calls her out on her internal war: "You're afraid of living.  Afraid of life!"  He's now her guardian angel.  This is an intense mission and ultimate test for them both.  This action-packed final combat scene is very Hollywood, yet these two solid actors keep the fantasy rooted in a working class reality.  Watch all the different emotions wash across Irene Dunne's face during Tracy's long dramatic and touching monologue.  She is actively listening with her soul.  She is listening to her soul.  Pete's spirit is with her.  You know Dorinda hears that little voice way in the back of her head -- only that little voice isn't hers.  It's a spiritual inspiration.  "Inspire" means to breath in, which is exactly what Dunne does in her last shot.  She breaths in deeply.  Even the tips of her collar flap as she does.  You feel Dorinda's spiritual change. Lovely work, Ms. Dunne.  How many moviegoers also had to learn how to move on from grief caused by World War II?  Have you ever lost a loved one?  When friends tried to comfort you by saying that he or she "is in a better place," didn't you feel like saying "Yes, but I'm not"?  I know I did.  I think that's why I connect with Irene Dunne's performance as Dorinda.  Moving on from a state of grief is not easy.  She played Dorinda's heartbreak and emotional conflict so well.  Her final scene always makes my eyes a bit misty.

Several Irene Dunne movies were remade.  Deborah Kerr starred in popular remakes of two Irene Dunne classics -- Love Affair and Anna and the King of Siam which became An Affair to Remember and the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, The King and I.  Cimarron, Back Street, Roberta, Showboat, Magnificent Obsession and The Awful Truth were also redone.  Marilyn Monroe was doing Dunne's role in a remake of My Favorite Wife when her untimely death halted production.  The project was later repackaged and became 1963's Move Over, Darling with Doris Day and James Garner.  Day playfully mentions Dunne in the movie.  A Guy Named Joe was no exception.  It's makeover was Steven Spielberg's Always with Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss as Dorinda and Pete in 1989.  Forest fires replaced Nazis in the Spielberg version.

The patriotic A Guy Named Joe was written by Dalton Trumbo, later one of the Hollywood Ten and a victim of blacklisting.  In that dark political period of the late 1940s/1950s, he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).  Go figure.  What a shame.  His A Guy Named Joe was one of the top ten box office hits of the year.
See Irene Dunne in feminist flight action Friday night, August 24th, on TCM.  That whole day is a Dunne deal on Turner Classic Movies.  On that same day, you can read more about her in the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon.  Here's a link:

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