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.