LOS ANGELES, SEPT. 4 -- Irene Dunne, whose beauty, charm and versatility made her a top star in comedy, dramatic and musical films of the 1930s and 1940s, died today at her home. She was 88.
Dunne, who starred in such classic films as "Show Boat," "Cimarron," and "A Guy Named Joe," had been in ill health for the last year and bedridden for the last month, said her daughter, Mary Frances Griffin Gage, who announced her death. Her business manager said Dunne had an irregular heartbeat.
During her Hollywood heyday, Dunne was among the most sought-after and highly paid stars. She also was an active Republican; President Eisenhower appointed her as alternate delegate to the U.N. General Assembly. President Reagan and his wife, Nancy, were close friends of Dunne's.
Dunne's sense of timing made her perfect for screwball comedies such as "The Awful Truth" and "My Favorite Wife." She also sang in such musicals as "Roberta" and "Show Boat," and acted in the tear-jerkers "Magnificent Obsession" and "Back Street."
Dunne never won an Oscar, but she received five nominations: "Cimarron," released in 1930; "Theodora Goes Wild," 1936; "The Awful Truth," 1937; "Love Affair," 1939; and "I Remember Mama," 1948.
Irene Marie Dunn -- she added the final "e" later -- was born Dec. 20, 1901, although some sources list varying years including 1898 and 1904. She was raised in Louisville and educated in private schools.
She studied voice at the Chicago College of Music, intending an operatic career. But when she failed an audition at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1920, she turned to musical comedy, touring with a company of "Irene."
The actress was appearing in "Show Boat" when she was signed to a contract by RKO Pictures in 1929. Except for "Cimarron" and "Roberta," in which she sang "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," her RKO films were undistinguished. Only when she became a freelance star in 1936 did her career soar.
Dunne's last film was a mild comedy, "It Grows on Trees," in 1952. She made occasional television appearances afterward.
She was in poor health in December 1985, when she was scheduled to accept Kennedy Center honors in Washington, along with Bob Hope, Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, Beverly Sills and Merce Cunningham. She was too ill to attend the ceremony.
Dunne always maintained an air of dignity, both on the screen and off, and was devoted to Roman Catholic causes.
Dunne married a young dentist, Francis Griffin, in 1920. He died in 1965.
She is survived by her daughter.