Family & Companions
An agreeable juvenile lead who managed to shift into a convincing career in character parts, James Dunn was born in Harlem and started his professional life selling lunch wagons to vendors in New Rochelle, New York. Overtaken by the acting bug, he began getting bit parts at Paramount's Astoria studios in the late 1920s. In 1930 he appeared in two Broadway shows, "The Nightstick" and Helen Morgan's "Sweet Adeline." Signed by Fox in 1931, he made 22 films for them (and several loan-outs) in five years. His first, the melodrama "Bad Girl," shot him to overnight fame and assured the continuance of his Fox contract (if not superstardom). Most of his films there were pleasant, forgettable programmers, and his co-stars included everyone on the Fox lot: Sally Eilers (six films, including his first), Peggy Shannon and Spencer Tracy ("Society Girl," 1932), Ginger Rogers and Janet Gaynor ("Change of Heart," 1934), Alice Faye ("365 Nights in Hollywood," 1934, and "George White's 1935 Scandals"). He is best-remembered in his early days for four 1934 co-starring roles with a very young Shirley Temple, notably in "Baby Take a Bow" and the delightful "Stand Up and Cheer."
Dunn went freelance in 1936, and his career began a downslide. He did small films for medium-sized studios (Columbia, Universal, RKO) and even smaller films on Poverty Row (Monogram, Republic, Grand National). He returned to Broadway in 1940 with a role in "Panama Hattie," which at least kept his name before the public.
Elia Kazan came to Dunn's rescue with the period "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" (1945). His performance as the ne'er-do-well Irish father garnered him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar; but disappointingly, his film roles didn't much improve. He did several stage productions, including "Harvey" on Broadway in 1948. Dunn made another eight unremarkable films, ending with "The Oscar" (1966).
If his film and theater appearances didn't rekindle his fame, Dunn did get a lot of TV work in the 1950s. He appeared on nearly every "Golden Age" anthology, including "Studio One" (CBS), "Pulitzer Prize Playhouse" (ABC), "Curtain Call Theater" (NBC) and "First Person Singular" (Dumont). He also had recurring roles in the series "It's a Great Life" (NBC, 1954-56), "Mr. Broadway" (NBC, 1957), and "Ben Casey" (ABC, 1961-66).
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Cinematography (Feature Film)
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Art Department (Feature Film)
Film Production - Main (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Special)
Broadway acting debut
Made film debut in Fox's "Bad Girl"
Returned to Broadway in "Panama Hattie"
Filed for bankruptcy
Made last film, "The Oscar"