Irene Dunne and The White Cliffs of Dover

By 1944, Irene Dunne was one of the top female stars in Hollywood. A four-time Academy Award nominee for Best Actress, she was in demand by all the major Hollywood studios. In 1943, Dunne signed on to star in a picture at Metro Goldwyn Mayer. A Guy Named Joe paired the actress with Spencer Tracy and a young newcomer named Van Johnson. During filming, Johnson was involved in a serious car accident. Dunne and Tracy didn’t want to replace their co-star, so production was delayed while he recuperated. Since Dunne was already on the lot, MGM scooped her up for The White Cliffs of Dover.

Verse Novel Source for Film

The White Cliffs of Dover is based on a verse novel, The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller, published in 1940. The novel was an instant success and sold almost a million copies. Duer Miller was a popular writer and screenwriter. In fact, one of her stories was made into the musical Roberta starring Dunne in 1935.

War-Time Romance

The White Cliffs of Dover focuses on a young American woman, Susan Dunn (played by Dunne), and her father (the irascible Frank Morgan), who are touring London before the outbreak of World War I. She meets a young British aristocrat and army officer, Sir John Asherwood (Alan Marshall). After a whirlwind courtship they marry, but their honeymoon and marriage are tragically cut short. Susan Dunn Asherwood remains in her adopted country and has a son, John Jr.

Serene and Dignified

The film is told in flashback, as Dunne’s character recalls her younger days while serving as a nurse during World War II. At the beginning of the movie, Dunne plays a young girl of 20, which was quite a stretch since she was 46 years old when the film was released. Even though it’s obvious that Dunne isn’t in her 20s, she captures the spirit of a young woman in both her mannerisms and speech. As the older woman, Dunne is serene and dignified. In his May 12, 1944 review of the film, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said, “Miss Dunne gives to her character a nice glow of American charm…”

Alan Marshall and Dunne

Like an earlier MGM release, 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, The White Cliffs of Dover was popular with wartime audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. The novel on which it is based cemented the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom during the war years. The movie cost $2,343,000 to produce while it earned $4,045,000 in the U.S. and another $2,249,00 in foreign receipts, making it a blockbuster hit and a good choice as MGM’s 20th Anniversary film that year.

In a famous photograph of MGM movie stars commemorating the studio’s 20th anniversary, Dunne, technically not a studio contract player, is seated in the front row, two seats to the left of studio chief, Louis B. Mayer. It’s a tribute to Dunne’s popularity (and Mayer’s keen marketing sense) that she was included in this iconic image.

Stephen Reginald is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant. A long-time amateur student of film, Reginald was the original host for “Meet Me at the Movies,” a monthly classic movie event held in his South Loop Chicago neighborhood. Reginald also teaches adult education classes at Facets Film School in Chicago. For more information, visit Classic Movie Man and South Loop Connection.

  • Brumbolt

    I loved THE WHITE CKIFFS OF DOVER and Irene Dunne .She was quite a singer too,I had an album by her when I was a kd (78 RPM,remerber those?) When I met June Lockhart I mentioned that film as the first time I saw her .Rody Mcdowell plated the son and Peter lawford as the adukt son, Elizabeth Taylor (I think it was her first fim) played the sons pkaymater Her character became June .. Thanks for reminding me of this film
    Gordon Stevens Winnipeg Canada

  • Joel

    A wonderful film starring a wonderful lady.  I have often thought that she, and Barbara Stanwyck were the most versatile of hollywood stars of the time.

  • Wayne P.

    A great actress and she had good chemistry with Spencer Tracy in this picture, just like they did in A Guy Named Joe.  Having a trained voice, she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (in Roberta, I think) very well and also had some fine turns with Cary Grant where she showed her gifts for both comedy and singing again in the scewball classics The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife!

    • dardavis01

      Actually, Spencer Tracy wasn’t in The White Cliffs of Dover. You may mean Van Johnson.

  • Frankiedc

    Irene Dunne is one of the most versatile actresses in the history of Hollywood. Her beautiful singing voice was evident in Showboat and Roberta. Her dramatic abilities were shown in Penny Serenade and Back Street and the two MGM movies in the article, and her comic talents were on display in The Awful Truth, Theodora Goes Wild and  My Favorite Wife. And who could forget her indelible performance in I Remember Mama later in her career.

    Yet in all her films, there was never a doubt she was, above all, a lady of refinement and taste. She might effectively portray a kept woman or a madcap heiress, but there was always evident refinement in her performances .

  • Gemini09

    A wonderful actress I particularly love her films with Cary Grant. I haven’t seen the White Cliffs of Dover for many many years and look forward to watching it again.

  • Sreggie

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Irene Dunne was a remarkable talent. “The White Cliffs of Dover” is a great example of her skill at melodrama. And as others have noted, Dunne had was a class act.  Few actresses could match Dunne’s talent.

  • John M

    I agree completely with your review and also making mention of “Mrs. Miniver” being in a similar category. I enjoyed both movies, and surely Irene Dunne was a remarkable talent and able to pull off the age span by flashback style. I believe the part of her grown son is played by a young Peter Lawford, but was never able to tell in the last scene whether he lives or not.

  • dardavis01

    Irene Dunne was the best actress never to receive an academy award. She could do it all… and she did. I loved her in Show Boat (in my opinion, the best version) and think she was awesome in I Remember Mama and Life with Father and everything in between. She had a lot of class and was always a lady. What a remarkable person.

  • DollyT

    I remember the film and the song and it has stuck with me since I saw it and heard it at the age of 8 years old.

  • Cara

    I watched The White Cliffs of Dover on TCM after reading your blog. Irene Dunn is always a pleasure to watch, and I don’t regret seeing the movie, but TWCD is no Mrs. Miniver.

    • Stephen Reginald

      Glad you enjoyed it, Cara.