by Jonathan Ruskin and Rhonda Brown
© 2012 Life-Motion’d Media
Chronicling the lives of Hollywood stars is an endeavor that goes back almost to the dawn of the moving picture. Biographies of such screen luminaries as Pickford and Fairbanks, Chaplin, Hepburn and Garbo line the shelves of bookstores and libraries the world over.
But what of the character actor? The B-movie leading men and women, the bit-players? Were the hoofers, comedians and chorus girls any less responsible for creating the Hollywood constellation? On the contrary – they were the industry’s very backbone.
These young men and women were among the countless throngs of hopefuls who arrived in sun-baked Southern California on buses and trains, all hoping for the immortality of the Silver Screen. Some actually held fame within their grasp for a time, before the fickle hand of the American moviegoer smashed those dreams to crystal – like a cast-off champagne glass – rendering the dreamer a mere footnote in the encyclopedia of Hollywood.
James Dunn was one of the many wide-eyed and eager who came to Hollywood in the 1930’s. Jimmy was a broad-smiling song-and-dance man who quickly became one of the major players in early Fox musicals. When the backstage musical cycle had run its course, replaced by the flashier, glossy Technicolor variety, Jimmy found himself only able to find work in low-budget potboilers and hokey comedies on Hollywood’s Poverty Row. The blow to his self-esteem, coupled with his battle with alcoholism, made him all but unemployable.
However, Hollywood is not only the land of broken dreams, it is also the home of second chances. In 1945 a young director named Elia Kazan took a chance on Jimmy, offering him the pivotal role of Johnny Nolan in the film adaptation of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The film was a hit, and Jimmy took home an Academy Award for his sympathetic, multi-faceted performance. He was no longer Jimmy Dunn, wisecracking song-and-dance man, he was James Dunn, serious and successful actor.
The story of James Dunn is often one of heartbreak – of the Hollywood dream gone sour. But, it is also a story of hope – a hope that survived career disappointments, disastrous marriages and a constant struggle against the demons within. James Dunn’s massive body of work in film and television remains as a testament to his talent and perseverance. His star shone briefly but brightly.
In the hearts of those who knew him, as well as a new generation of film lovers who never shared this Earth with him, he was a man of depth, warmth and possessed of an astonishing talent. As one of the first of the group of performers to be immortalized on Hollywood’s iconic Walk of Fame, James Dunn’s warm smile lives on, as a flickering image in our collective film consciousness.
MANHATTAN TO HOLLYWOOD
James Dunn, Jimmy to all who knew him, was born near 146th Street and Broadway in New York City on November 2, 1901. His father Ralph was was a stockbroker and his mother, the former Jessie Archer, was a homemaker.
Long before his career in pictures, Jimmy was already making headlines. While on a family vacation in Connecticut, he was presented with a pony for the Holidays. His nurse, Mary Millett, decided to take 4-year-old Jimmy for a ride. The nurse’s bulldog was the jealous type, however, and lunged at the youngster. Unable to catch his prey, the dog then went for the pony who became frightened and bolted. After a wild ride, the pony crashed into a telephone pole, sending a frightened Mary and Jimmy flying. Both were unhurt, but the incident was reported in the New York Times on December 29th, 1905.
The family soon settled in suburban New Rochelle, where Jimmy would complete his education.
As a young man, the restless Jimmy briefly worked for his father’s brokerage firm, but such a stuffy position didn’t suit his exuberant personality! He soon quit the firm, and went to work for a company that sold lunch wagons. Being the personable young man that he was, he became quite a successful salesman, until one fateful, rainy day. Jimmy had made a quick sale to a customer in Pelham, who was in a hurry to have it delivered. Eager to please, he rushed to the factory to find all of the regular drivers unavailable. Undeterred, Jimmy decided to take matters into his own hands, and got behind the wheel.
He soon found out the hard way that a vehicle that size can do a lot of skidding, especially going downhill on a wet road. Fortunately, the truck finally came to a stop, but not before mowing down six telephone poles in a row. Jimmy climbed out, leaving the truck resting on its side, and phoned in his resignation.
Since a traditional career obviously wasn’t Jimmy’s forté, he soon gravitated to the stage. Vaudeville was a perfect outlet for the Irish kid with the sparkling blue eyes, mischievious smile and boundless energy, and it wasn’t long before he made his Broadway debut in The Nightstick. Walk-ons in films followed, and Jimmy soon began building a reputation as a terrific performer…and a bit of a rapscallion!
After finishing a day on location, as an extra for a New York studio, he was merrily driving home one night when he was stopped for going 70 mph. He spent a couple of nights in an unlocked jail cell courtesy of the Greenwich (Connecticut) police, and proceeded to drive his captors crazy by singing all night long. When ordered to stop he responded merrily: “I’ll stop singing when the judge says I can go!”
Isn’t wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. Jimmy and his mother Jessie soon headed West for Hollywood – and a contract with Fox Studios. Notoriety came swiftly for the new song-and-dance man in town!
Jimmy made a huge splash in the classic (and controversial) Bad Girl, alongside rising star Sally Eilers. With one divorce behind him already, he shrugged off speculation about the many starlets seen in his company, and enjoyed the good life with aplomb. Jimmy soon became the star of a string of early Fox musicals. These included the fondly-remembered 365 Nights in Hollywood and George White’s 1935 Scandals, both alongside a Harlow-esque Alice Faye. Although initially reluctant, he soon was teamed with young Shirley Temple in Stand Up and Cheer; Baby, Take a Bow and Bright Eyes. The films were enormous successes, and Jimmy was immediately taken by his toddler co-star.
Jimmy was also known around Tinseltown for his love of the fairer sex. He was rarely seen about town without a beautiful actress on his arm, including co-star June Knight and Maureen O’Sullivan. One actress, Lona André actually got Jimmy to the altar…unfortunately she failed to appear, fearing a marriage would hurt her career. Despite this romantic setback, Jimmy’s career currency was on the rise. He was appearing in film after film with some of the day’s biggest names.
A fan of all things fast and furious, Jimmy soon took to the skies as a pilot. While his studio contract forbade him from flying, Jimmy surreptitiously flew whenever the opportunity arose. In 1937, he flew federal authorities and their prisoner to New Orleans, and made it back before the studio brass were any the wiser. The year before he had been a contestant in the Ruth Chatterton Air Derby.
His film career was beginning to soar, and his future looked secure. According to a 1940 newspaper article, if there were more Hollywood moms like Jessie Dunn, there would be no need for the motion picture relief fund. Jessie invested almost all of Jimmy’s money in real estate, stocks and bonds, giving her son a regular allowance. “I remember the arguments trying to wheedle $50.00 from her”, Jimmy said. Jessie turned over most of his money to him when he married Frances, but kept a trust fund for him that he wouldn’t be able to access until he was 50! Then he would receive $900.00 per month for the rest of his life, something for which Jimmy would always be grateful.
However, everything soon came crashing down for the high-flying new star as his fun-loving ways began to affect his work at the studio.
In director Elia Kazan’s words, Jimmy was “run out” of Hollywood as his alcoholism took hold., and he would fall from rising star to B-film actor nearly overnight. Despite this descent, he continued to work almost continuously, albeit in poverty-row productions and occasional radio performances.
It was during this period that he met his second wife, the charming brunette Frances Gifford, who had appeared with Jimmy in a bit role in Living on Love. The pair eloped in 1938 (with Jimmy flying his bride-to-be to Yuma) and co-starred in two films, Hold that Woman! and Mercy Plane. While both films were solid entertainment, they were strictly no-budget affairs. Neither Jimmy nor Frances saw much of a career lift from their cinematic collaborations.
It seemed that Jimmy’s career was going nowhere fast, until one new arrival in Hollywood decided to give Jimmy a chance.
BROOKLYN AND BEYOND
While the biggest names in Hollywood scrambled for the plum role of Johnny Nolan in Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kazan chose Jimmy to play the charming, dreamy, alcoholic father in the now-classic film. His performance – dripping of truth and authenticity – broke hearts and reminded the world of Jimmy’s emense talent. Hollywood certainly took notice, and Jimmy was awarded the 1946 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Not only did the mid-1940’s bring a sort of renaissance to Jimmy’s career, it was also the year that his personal life fell into place. Edna Rush, an old flame from his bachelor days, came back into his life after eighteen years apart. Jimmy had married and divorced twice (his marriage to Frances Gifford ended in 1942), Edna once. The two met again and rekindled their romance. The couple married in Philadelphia in the early months of 1945, and their marriage would last the rest of Jimmy’s life. In a heartwarming twist, Edna’s Maid-of-Honor was none other than Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Not only did Jimmy finally marry the love of his life, he also gained a son. Edna’s son Billy was adopted by Jimmy soon after the marriage…and the Dunn family was finally complete.
While riding high on his new marriage and Oscar triumph, the late 1940s were not all roses for the Dunn family. On May 30th, 1946, Jimmy’s beloved mother Jessie passed away in a Los Angeles sanitarium, where she had lived the final year of her life. Although he was filming in San Francisco, Jimmy diligently flew home at every opportunity to be with his her. He was at her side when she passed.
While A Tree Grows in Brooklyn failed to revive his career in films for long, Jimmy soon found work in the infant medium of television. He was a much sought-after guest star on all of the period’s most popular anthology series. Jimmy also took center stage as the irritable layabout Earl on the uprorious sitcom It’s a Great Life from 1954-1956. Although he lost a lot of money in a failed stage venture, Jimmy continued to work in television, making dozens of appearances over the next decade.
After a career spanning three decades, James Howard Dunn died of peritonitus, following surgery, on Friday, September 1st, 1967 at the age of 65. He was survived by his third wife, singer Edna Rush, and stepson William Pick. His ashes were scattered at sea.
While many chronicles of Old Hollywood minimize or omit Jimmy’s contribution to our film heritage, his talent cannot be denied. He was one of the first people to be honored with a star on the famed Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is one of the very, very few to have two stars, one for film and another for television. He was also honored with his own US postage stamp, in a series commemorating Academy Award winners.
He is loved and he is missed by those who knew him and those who admire his talent, strength and perseverance.
© 2012 Life-Motion’d Media