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Irene Dunne had been a popular stage performer who had gone to Hollywood in the early days of talking pictures, under contract to RKO. But her early films made little use of her singing talents, and by the early 1930s, Dunne was well on her way to becoming the studio's Queen of the Weepies, especially after the enormous popularity of Back Street (1932), in which she played the longtime mistress of a married man. The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933) was another tearjerking melodrama, but in the early part of the film, playing a showgirl, Dunne got to sing and display a lighthearted charm before the story turned to soap opera.
The film was based on a play, The Lady (1923), which had been filmed as a 1925 silent starring Norma Talmadge. A story of self-sacrificing mother love with more than a passing resemblance to Madame X (1929) and The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), The Secret of Madame Blanche is the story of Sally, an American showgirl in turn-of-the-century London wooed by a rich playboy who defies his father to marry her. Their romance ends tragically, and Sally loses her infant son to her father-in-law. Years later, mother and son are dramatically reunited.
The Secret of Madame Blanche was the first screenplay of husband-and-wife writing team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. The couple had written several successful Broadway plays, and had first gone to Hollywood in 1931, when Hackett was hired to be dialogue director on the film version of their play Up Pops the Devil. It was not a good experience, and they returned to New York, but were wooed back two years later by MGM. The best scenes in The Secret of Madame Blanche are the early ones, thanks to the combination of Dunne's warmth and Goodrich and Hackett's wit. The scene of Dunne playing with her baby son is particularly poignant. The Hacketts would find their ideal vehicle the following year, in their sparkling adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's husband-and-wife detective story, The Thin Man (1934). Their friends believed the affectionate repartee between Nick and Nora Charles in that film mirrored the Hacketts' own relationship. Hackett and Goodrich earned four Oscar® nominations, including one for The Thin Man, and won a Pulitzer Prize for their play, The Diary of Anne Frank.
In spite of the efforts of Hackett, Goodrich, and Dunne, however, critics were lukewarm towards The Secret of Madame Blanche, heaping most of its faint praise on Dunne, who "gives quite an appealing and sincere performance," according to Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times. She "does a good deal to mitigate the banalities of the theme," noted the New York Evening Post. And she "plays the familiar and sometimes slightly embarrassing part with reticence and feeling," added the New York Herald Tribune.
Dunne continued to churn out tearjerkers for several more years, and finally got to reprise her stage success as Magnolia in the 1936 film version of Show Boat. That same year, she began a new phase of her career, as a screwball comedienne in Theodora Goes Wild, and later starred in two of the best of the genre, The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). From the mid-1930s until she retired from films in the early 1950s, Dunne moved easily between drama, comedy and an occasional musical. Thereafter, she worked in television, and devoted herself to Republican politics and Catholic charity work. She died in 1990, at the age of 91.
Director: Charles Brabin
Screenplay: Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett, from the play "The Lady" by Martin Brown
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Sally Sanders St. John), Lionel Atwill (Aubrey St. John), Phillips Holmes (Leonard St. John), Una Merkel (Ellen), Douglas Walton (Leonard St. John, Jr.), C. Henry Gordon (State's Attorney), Jean Parker (Eloise Duval), Mitchell Lewis (Duval).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri