Oscar Actors: Dunn, James–Background, Career, Awards

Updated June 26, 2020
James Dunn Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: upper-middle; father stock exchange


Education: New Rochelle; often skipped classes


Radio Debut:

Stage Debut: 1927; age 26

Broadway Debut: 1929; age 28

Film Debut: Bad Girl, 1931; age 30

Oscar Role: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945; age 41

Other Noms: No

Other Awards:

Screen Image: Alcoholic

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Marriage: 3



James Howard Dunn (November 2, 1901 – September 1, 1967), billed as Jimmy Dunn in his early career, was a US stage, film, and television actor.

His screen debut in the 1931 film Bad Girl made him an overnight box-office star and he was cast as  lead in romantic dramas and comedy films. In 1934, he co-starred with Shirley Temple in her first three films. In 1935, at the height of his popularity, he broke his studio contract two years before it expired and became a free agent.

With musicals in decline in the late 1930s, he was cast in B movies and began struggling with alcoholism in his personal life. In 1945, having not worked for a major studio for 5 years, he was selected by Kazan for the role of Johnny Nolan, the dreamy alcoholic father in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” which earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

The Oscar did not advance his film career, however, and while he still found roles on Broadway, he became character actor on TV. He had regular role in the hit sitcom “It’s a Great Life” from 1954 to 1956, and guest-starred in episodes of popular TV series from the 1950s through mid-1960s. In 1960, he received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

James Howard Dunn was born on November 2, 1901, in Manhattan. His parents, Ralph H. Dunn, member of the New York Stock Exchange, and mother Jessie L. Archer had married in January 1901. He was their only child, and of Irish descent.

At age 4, while wintering with his parents at Shippan Point, Connecticut, Dunn had a near-accident, when a bulldog of his babysitter attacked him, but he was unhurt.

Dunn grew up in New Rochelle, New York, and attended school there. He often skipped high school classes to hang around film studios in the upper Bronx.

After graduation, Dunn tried sales, selling lunch wagons and becoming an auto demonstrator. He worked for 3 years in his father’s brokerage firm, but his real love was the theater.

In 1927 he left his father’s employ to join a small troupe. He later said in 1934 interview: “I wasn’t at all sure I’d be a hit, or even an actor good enough to obtain reasonably steady work. But that didn’t make a lot of difference. I could not see any other career and I knew I wouldn’t be happy unless I tried it.” He also sought out jobs as an extra in shorts at Paramount Long Island studios. He joined a stock theater company out of Englewood, New Jersey, for a 37-week engagement, and performed with another company, the Permanent Players, at the Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg, Canada, for a 22-week run.

Broadway: 1929

Upon his return to New York, he landed the male lead in the 1929 Broadway musical “Sweet Adeline,” opposite Helen Morgan.

Screen Test and Fox Contract

Dunn’s Broadway performance attracted the attention of studio executives. In 1931, MGM, which conducted screen tests at Fox Film’s Astoria Studios in New York, called Dunn in for a screen test.  He was asked to read a scene from Bad Girl. While MGM was not impressed with their result, Fox director Frank Borzage liked Dunn’s test and wanted to cast him in his film version of Bad Girl. Dunn signed a contract with Fox, and relocated to Hollywood; his mother joined him the following year.

Screen Debut

Dunn made his screen debut in Bad Girl (1931), which catapulted him and co-star Sally Eilers to “overnight fame.”

Screen Image:

Dunn and Eilers were re-teamed in Over the Hill (1931), Dance Team (1932), Sailor’s Luck (1933), and Hold Me Tight (1933). Dunn also played the lead in Sob Sister (1931), Society Girl (1932), and Hello, Sister! (1933). By the end of 1933, he was being referred to as “America’s boy friend.”

Shirley Temple Co-Star

In 1934, Dunn appeared in 7 films for Fox, 3 of which were also the first three films of six-year-old Shirley Temple. In Stand Up and Cheer!, Dunn and Temple play a father and daughter who perform in one song-and-dance sequence. Rather than have the young girl learn a new routine, the producers had Temple teach Dunn the steps to a tap-dance routine she had learned in her dancing school.

Their memorable performance prompted studio execs to cast them in a follow-up, Baby Take a Bow, a remake of the 1928 silent Square Crooks. Temple again plays Dunn’s daughter in this film, whose title was the name of Dunn and Temple’s song in Stand Up and Cheer!

Their third film pairing was in Bright Eyes, a vehicle written for Temple and co-starring Dunn as a bachelor pilot and friend of Temple’s deceased father who seeks to adopt her. Temple sings “On the Good Ship Lollipop” aboard Dunn’s character’s airplane in this film. Later that same year, Temple was cast in a small part as Dunn’s neighbor in Change of Heart.

Dunn and Temple worked well together. She appreciated that Dunn treated her as a peer. Dunn admitted he was initially worried about playing opposite Temple: “All actors dislike working with children. The kids usually steal most of your scenes, or run away with the picture entirely. Despite this, he admired Temple’s professionalism and was one of her fans. Temple received top billing in each of their films, and her career soon eclipsed his.

Career decline
During his five years at Fox, Dunn appeared in 30 films. In 1935, the height of his popularity, Dunn broke his studio contract 2 years before its expiration. He was about to start filming a remake of The Song and Dance Man, but the project was shelved due to Fox’s merger with Twentieth Century Pictures. Dunn was “dissatisfied with pictures recently given me, except those with Shirley Temple.” He was reportedly reimbursed for the remainder of his contract.

With musicals on the wane in the late 1930s, Dunn’s career slumped and he was cast in mediocre comedies and melodramas. His prospects were also hurt by his growing problem with alcoholism. During “George White’s 1935 Scandals,” shooting began in late morning to accommodate Dunn.  He began to be regarded as “unemployable” by the major film studios.

In 1940, Dunn returned to Broadway for an 87-week run in the hit musical  “Panama Hattie” with Ethel Merman, to positive reviews.

Oscar Winner: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
Dunn had not worked for major studio for five years when he was asked to screen-test for the role of Johnny Nolan, the dreamy alcoholic father “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Dunn had returned to Hollywood in 1944 to seek film roles but had not applied for this part fearing rejection. However, his friend actress Gloria Grafton, urged casting directors of the extensive talent search to hire him. Director Elia Kazan said he chose Dunn because drinking had impacted the actor’s career, and because he saw “a trace of pain in Dunn’s face that indicated he had ‘failed the test of life’ and Kazan wanted to bring that ‘pain’ to the screen.” Dunn drew from his own experiences for his characterization.

Critics widely hailed Dunn’s performance as his “finest.” At the 18th Academy Awards ceremony, Dunn won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.

Winning the Oscar, however, did not revive his film prospects. While Dunn did not raise his price, acting jobs were slow in coming. He returned to the role of alcoholic father in Killer McCoy opposite Mickey Rooney.

His last film performance for nearly a decade was in the short “A Wonderful Life” (1951), produced for the Christian film industry. Dunn appeared in 4 films in the 1960s, including another role alcoholic in The Bramble Bush (1960).

Return to the stage
In 1947, Dunn was cast as Jamie Tyrone, a man who resorted to drink to forget his unhappy past, in Eugene O’Neill’s semi-autobiographical play A Moon for the Misbegotten. Dunn was given a run-of-the-play contract and $1,000 per week, compared to the $750 per week salary of fellow performer J. M. Kerrigan. During rehearsals, O’Neill was dissatisfied with Dunn’s portrayal of Tyrone, a character based on O’Neill’s brother, claiming that Dunn “wasn’t playing the role with enough gentlemanliness,” but the director defended his interpretation. Dunn felt out of his league playing tragedy rather than comedy. He had never seen an O’Neill play and said his wife had persuaded him to take the part for the “prestige”.  While Dunn’s performance garnered critical praise on the tour, he left the production before it reached Broadway.

In 1948, Dunn succeeded James Stewart in “Harvey,” appearing in 108 performances of the long-running Broadway play. In 1951, Dunn played Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Norwich Summer Theater.

TV Career
In 1949, Dunn became a character actor on television. He guest-starred in dozens of episodes of popular television series in the 1950s through mid-1960s, including Bonanza, Rawhide, Route 66, Ben Casey, and The Virginian. He had a regular role in the popular sitcom It’s a Great Life, which aired 78 episodes from 1954 to 1956. Dunn played Earl Morgan, the deadbeat brother-in-law of the main character, Amy Morgan (Frances Bavier), who was always concocting get-rich-quick schemes to interest Amy’s tenants, Steve Connors (William Bishop) and Denny Davis (Michael O’Shea). The three comedians had good rapport and often ad-libbed their lines.

In 1962, Dunn played a clown in makeup and costume in episode of Follow the Sun, and sang “On the Good Ship Lollipop” from his 1934 film Bright Eyes. In 1963, he played P. J. Cunningham, the manager-driver for music band led by Bobby Rydell, in the unsold Desilu half-hour TV pilot Swingin’ Together.

In his Hollywood heyday in the 1930s, Dunn was noted for his “clean-cut good looks and boyish charm”. As he matured, Dunn’s “trademark” was as an “expression of slightly battered wistfulness”.

On February 8, 1960, Dunn was honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—one for his contributions to motion pictures, and one for his contributions to television.

Proposals Contests

To commemorate the leap year of 1936, he announced a $50 prize to the woman who could send him the best proposal, with a $25 prize for the runner-up. He received a total of 10,000 submissions and awarded first prize to a 20-year-old native of Oklahoma, who wrote him a four-page poem.  Dunn awarded the second prize to a woman from Fort Beaufort, South Africa, and sent runner-up gifts to three other American women.

Dunn enjoyed playing golf and flying his airplane, by 1940, he had logged 750 flying hours. While under contract to Fox, however, the studio forbade him from participating in the 1935 Ruth Chatterton Air Derby.

Marriages: 3; second marriage to actress; third to singer

Dunn was married three times. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1922. On Christmas Day 1937, Dunn and his fiancée, 19-year-old actress Frances Gifford, flew in his plane to Yuma, Arizona, to be married there. The couple later starred together in Mercy Plane (1939) and Hold That Woman! (1940). The marriage failed in 1942 due to Dunn’s declining career  and fight with alcoholism; their divorce was finalized in 1943. In 1945 Dunn married his third wife, singer Edna Rush,[77] who survived him. Dunn adopted Rush’s son Billy.

Downward Mobility

In the 1930s, Dunn’s weekly earnings were in the thousands of dollars; he charged $5,000 for a personal appearance tour. His mother took charge of his finances and invested in stocks, bonds, real estate, and trust funds, giving him a weekly allowance. As a result, after his career slumped, he had financial security. Upon his 1938 marriage, Dunn’s mother gave him control of his portfolio. Thereafter Dunn lost a $40,000 option on the play “Cock of the Walk” that failed to reach Broadway, as well as a lot of money in stock market. He was forced to sell his $50,000 house, and move to a two-bedroom apartment in Malibu.

In October 1951, Dunn filed for bankruptcy. His mother had reserved a trust fund, to mature when he turned 50 and so it paid out $900 per month for life.

Dunn died on September 1, 1967, aged 65, from complications after stomach surgery.