Irene 1929 in "Show Boat"
“Show Boat” certainly had a special place in Irene´s career. In 1929 she entered the first road company of “Show Boat” as Magnolia – with great success – and this engagement turned out to be her catapult for a Hollywood career. There are different versions of how Irene managed to snatch that role, but I like the one she told herself in an article titled “Hats, Hunches And Happiness” from the year 1945:
A few years later, in New York, a blue hat did it again. Any young girl aspiring to a theatrical career held Florenz Ziegfeld in awe. When I found myself riding in a lift with the great showman, I was too much too frightened even to look at him, much less get off at the same floor. Imagine my surprise when a few minutes later, I discovered a young women calling after me.
"Stop, stop," she called, "Mr. Ziegfeld wants you, you, the girl in THE BLUE HAT!"
Show Boat was the result.Anyway, blue hats, just a simple audition or whatsoever, all of this would have ended in nothing without the needed talent, skills and ambition, and certainly not in a long term Hollywood career.
Beyond the fact that her participation in Show Boat proved to be the decisive step towards a Hollywood career, Irene had a personal, emotional approach to the subject of life on the Mississippi and steamboats. Her father, Joseph Dunn, was a supervising inspector of steamboats and one of Irene´s fondest memories of her childhood was a trip with her parents she made down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. Irene´s father is described as a wonderful story teller, full of exciting stories on the life on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, and knowing every boat and bayou. Joseph died when Irene was only fourteen, but nonetheless he proved to be a formative influence for the daughter of his. Miss Dunne, surely not the most outspoken person when it came to her personal life, spoke frequently about him – a sure sign of his importance.
Perhaps this very personal background and the fact that Irene knew the musical “Show Boat” backwards, are the reasons why she didn´t like the film very much. She certainly had definite ideas about this production, and in her opinion James Whale was “more interested in atmosphere and lighting and he knew so little about that life” and she added “No, I never cared for Show Boat (the film), but I thought the stage production was one of the best things. The score was marvelous, but even the book could have stood up on its own.” (interview with John Kobal, 1972).
This is something I regret, but Miss Dunne´s dislikes put aside, the film made the number 24 of the American´s Film Institute´s list of best musicals in 2006, and a place on my personal list of favorite Irene Dunne films.