Born in 1898, Irene Dunne was the daughter of a steamship inspector and a musician. She was encouraged in the arts by her parents, and appeared in her first production at age five in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Louisville. Irene pursued her studies in music, and auditioned at the Metropolitan Opera Company. She was rejected as being too young and inexperienced. She did win the leading role in a road theater company, however, which was in turn followed by numerous plays.
Irene came to the attention of Hollywood when she performed in "Show Boat" on the East Coast. By 1930 she was under contract to RKO Pictures. Her first film was Leathernecking (1930), which went virtually unnoticed.
In 1931 she appeared in Cimarron (1931), for which she received the first of five Academy Award nominations.
Irene appeared throughout the 1930s and 1940s with several leading men, including Carey Grant and Spencer Tracy. Irene began to get away from doing films and instead worked with many charities and public works she championed. Her last major movie was as Polly Baxter in 1952's It Grows on Trees (1952).
Irene died of heart failure on September 4, 1990 in Los Angeles, California.