Romantic comedy meets musical in the charming IRENE (1940), just out on DVD from the Warner Archive.
British actress Anna Neagle stars in the title role of this RKO release. Irene, a New York shopgirl with a lilting Irish brogue, makes a delivery to the fabulous Vincent Estate and has a chance meeting with Don (Ray Milland), a house guest who is quite taken with the lovely young woman.
Don can't forget Irene and arranges to have her hired as a model at Madame Lucy's, the dress shop he secretly owns. When the shop manager (Roland Young) has Irene and some other models crash a ball at the Vincents' mansion to show off the shop's gowns, fluttery Mrs. Vincent (Billie Burke) and her friends mistake Irene for Irish nobility. Irene becomes the toast of New York society.
Irene is soon courted by Bob Vincent (Alan Marshal), but once he proposes to Irene, she suddenly realizes she loves Don, and Bob simultaneously realizes he loves Eleanor (Marsha Hunt), a friend since childhood. It all gets very complicated for a while, but this being a musical comedy, does anyone doubt how things will turn out?
IRENE combines the best of '30s screwball-style comedy with a handful of musical sequences featuring the multi-talented Neagle. In addition to Billie Burke and Roland Young at their befuddled best, there's a hilarious performance by Arthur Treacher as -- what else? -- a butler. At one point Don tells the butler he understands "discretion is your middle name," to which the butler replies "If butlers told all they knew, society would be a shambles."
Lovely young Marsha Hunt, who was working as a free-lancer at the time, has a chance to shine in a small role as the society girl who belatedly realizes she loves her old friend Bob. IRENE was released the same year that Hunt appeared in MGM's classic PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1940), giving a funny performance as the painfully off-key Mary.
Neagle and Milland have a nice sympathetic chemistry; the scene where he initially goes looking for her in the restaurant where he knows she eats lunch is delightful, as they each try to act nonchalant but are thrilled to see one another. Don and Irene can be themselves when together, and with the notable exception of Don's hidden role as "Madame Lucy," they have no secrets from one another; their honesty and acceptance of one another as they are, regardless of class distinctions, is refreshing. Incidentally, Milland and Neagle were each around 34 when the film was made but are plausible as younger characters.
This 101-minute film was one of a handful of early '40s RKO releases in which Neagle appeared. As with her other projects, IRENE was directed by her husband and longtime collaborator, Herbert Wilcox.
An aspect which makes this black and white film -- and thus its release on DVD -- quite special is a unique Technicolor sequence which begins when Irene enters the ball in a beautiful old-fashioned dress. The movie's switch to color, showcasing Neagle's red curls and blue gown, is quite stunning. The color reel helps underscore Irene's wonder at being part of such an elegant fantasy world; she later shares her joy over the experience with her grandmother (May Robson) and best friends (Isabel Jewell and Doris Nolan) with a simple and moving rendition of "Alice Blue Gown."
Soon enough, like Cinderella, Irene's special night is over; the transition back to black and white is appropriately accompanied by a card reading "Comes the Cold Grey Dawn." The cinematography was by Russell Metty. The DVD print is quite nice, showing off both the color and black and white sequences to good effect.
When I first enjoyed this film on Turner Classic Movies half a dozen years ago, I had little hope that it would ever be available on DVD. Classic film fans are fortunate indeed that the Warner Archive makes lesser-known yet notable films such as IRENE widely available.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD.