Irene Dunne’s Unfinished Business

By: Megan McGurk

Robert Montgomery usually trades upon breezy gin-marinated smarm in his romantic roles, such as the louse he plays in The Divorcee (1930), a man who takes advantage of Norma Shearer’s marriage trouble to wheedle sex, or the department shop heir who watches Joan Crawford undress after she appears in a fashion show in Our Blushing Brides from the same year. Rich boy with entitlement issues was his character pigeon-hole throughout the 1930s. He wore a groove in celluloid playing louche playboys more comfortable handling a cocktail shaker than a leading lady. He’s a bit of a surprise in Gregory La Cava’s Unfinished Business (1941) because for the first time, he drops the detached bravado long enough to register empathy for a woman. Montgomery’s Tommy Duncan observes what escapes everyone else in the room: Irene Dunne’s humiliation. For a man who enjoys wealth and privilege that buffers any acknowledgement of human suffering, he nonetheless catches Dunne’s emotional agony when she’s forced to sing happy birthday to the man she loves (Preston Foster), who in turn pretends they’ve never met.

What leads Irene Dunne’s Nancy Andrews to table side humiliation begins when she joins the ranks of screen heroines who leave domestic obligations and claim a right to their own adventure. Garbo in Susan Lenox, Crawford in Possessed, Lombard in No Man of Her Own, Stanwyck in Baby Face, Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry, represent many women in film who exchange traditional family roles for independence. Once Nancy watches her younger sister marry, she’s free from her mothering role, and able to leap headlong into a plan to become ‘unsettled’. Although the newlyweds extend a room for her in their house, by way of compensation for her sacrificed youth, Nancy decides she’s not ready for the ice floe; instead, she sets off to become a professional singer in Manhattan. At 43 years-old, Irene Dunne looks at least ten years younger, so viewers understand her reluctance to occupy a rocking chair and sexless doom. Viewers may regard La Cava’s picture as an updated version of John Stahl’s Back Street (1932), where this time around, Irene Dunne’s character need not occupy the margins of a man’s life for two decades. It may sting that Dunne’s character suffers rejection and humiliation in her thirties as opposed to a younger age when most women learn the script for men’s line of seduction. At least here in Unfinished Business, she learns the lesson and moves on rather than martyr herself to an unworthy man.

On the train to New York, the likelihood of romance Nancy had wished for dissipates with the grim predatory bargain struck between Preston Foster’s Steve Duncan and his friend Frank (played by Dick Foran) to find the prettiest girl on the train. Once they fan out at opposites ends to inspect the women to win the $100 stakes, there’s no possibility for human connection. Their scenario somehow fails to age or fall out of fashion. You could stage the same exact wager between men today without losing a shred of plausibility. Yes, this is how some men pass the time, by hunting women, just short of bagging and tagging their prey.  La Cava underscores their creepiness, without room for a mistaken impression of good-natured hijinks. They even indulge in bouts of howling catch calls, heads thrown back as though they yearn for the cave fires and dragging women by the hair as ideal courtship. Steve and Frank consider themselves heroic Casanovas, except they appear more recognisable for what they are–spoilt middle-aged lechers with an empathy deficit.

Not only does La Cava resist idealising the men on the prowl, he restrains our impulse to read small town Irene Dunne’s Nancy as a witless rube who’s taken in by the rich man’s routine. La Cava made his business popping the social registry’s inflated ego balloons. He wastes no time revealing the crap so-called respectable people get away with scot-free, from including forgotten men on scavenger hunts in My Man Godfrey (1936) to Frank’s ‘where’d you get her—off a mail hook?’ when he sees that Steve won the bet. La Cava had folks who make sport of the unfortunate or innocent in his cross hairs.

Nancy begins to wobble as soon as Steve swoops into her personal space. He calls her a thoroughbred although she looks more like a foal, unsteady on her feet in her newfound freedom. She struggles to gain purchase while the rollicking train knocks around the rails, and on her way to the club car, as he hangs over her shoulder, Nancy falls and twists her ankle. Surefooted Steve, so intent on his wager that he has no trouble striking a smooth gait along the length of the train, seizes the opportunity to get her alone in his private cabin. Steve wasted no time manoeuvring her inside and pretend that he’s concerned with attending her injury; he puts her foot up, places a pillow under it and takes her shoe off, while he delivers a steady stream of flattery.


Nancy stays alert and on the defence during his big rescue ministrations. Her clothing may announce a small-town provenance, along with a necklace that cost $1.97, a price tag she divulges to stem his ability to laugh her off as a hick. Viewers know he will do no such thing, since it would eliminate his chances of scoring. Instead he objects to the costume jewellery because it obscures her pretty neck. A persistent barrage of compliments soften her resolve, until he’s distracted by the porter at the door, whom he bribes to leave them alone. Nancy removes the necklace while he’s busy, the first sign that she’s decided his advances will continue. Contrary to what some reviewers argue, Steve does not trick Nancy or lull her into submission with his phony gallantry. When he tells her ‘you’re the first girl who ever got wise to me’ it’s supposed to be another line, only, starved for sexual experience, Nancy concludes that it doesn’t matter. As she had said to him earlier

Some of the things you said were not unpleasant, even if you didn’t mean them.

She’s fully aware that he’s putting the moves on overdrive. Nancy says yes to him because the train has always figured in her fantasy life. In the previous scene, when she waved off the half-hearted proposal of a suitor in Messina, she envisaged the train whistle as the sound of a knight in shining armour, which promised to carry her toward bigger vistas and adventure. On the train with Steve, she falls into a drowsy-eyed, lustful account of her train fantasy, of the lights from small towns flashing by in the window, the speed, the whistle, confessing twice that

It does something to me.

Nancy’s seated across from Steve but she’s miles away, lost in the pleasure of her own sexual reverie. It’s really not about Steve, his pick-up lines, or flattery, he just happens to be there, convenient for her own desire. Had they met in the theatre, park or on the bus, she probably would have frozen him out altogether. He could be any man. He’s there to put flesh to her fantasy fulfilment, a prospect too tempting to refuse.

She may not have direct experience with a seduction scene, but every woman by Nancy’s age cobbles together enough scraps from books, magazines, film, advice manuals, and gossip about the beast with two backs. Rather than fit the stereotype of some delicate maiden from the corn belt, Nancy has been preparing for this moment throughout her adult life. Her fantasy, worry and preoccupation with personal freedom, which put her on the train in the first place, has imagined some version of how men proposition and succeed with women. Nancy may not know intimate details about what happens during sex, but she has no doubt read plenty about what transpires before sex. She knows full well what destination the figurative train heads and her signal lights up in green.

Why should she wait to arrive in New York before waging a campaign to ‘unsettle’ and repay lost years? Women in the audience understand why she swoons for the first attractive man who makes a pass on the train. Nancy decides she’s ready to let his seduction happen once she removes the faux pearl necklace he objects to when the porter calls in, so that Steve may kiss her throat without obstruction. She wants those kisses she’s waited for a long time. What viewers find less comprehensible is why Nancy declares her love for him as they part in the station. It seems inconsistent with her emotional acumen that she would regard her feelings as ‘love’ and expect it reciprocated or believe his word when he promises to ring her at a hotel for women. I’d like to chalk this plot detail up to the Production Code. The only thing that allowed this film to pass the censors was that good-girl Irene Dunne can have a one night stand with a random guy because she loves him, rather than just loving the sexual fantasy. For most other women of her star magnitude, you could believe that they were untroubled by a one-off fling. Irene Dunne, ‘the First Lady of Hollywood’, as La Cava had dubbed her, elevates a tawdry encounter to something justifiably pure or blameless. She’s just not the casual sex type, so she gets away with it.

Irene’s Nancy falls hard for a scum bag pick up artist. When he extricates himself at the station with no intention of seeing her again, we know they will meet as surely as Chekhov’s proviso about a gun on the wall. Less a matter of true love, since he’s a total stranger, what earns Nancy’s devotion seems like how Steve made her feel in a fantasy come alive. She always wanted to be a woman on a train watching the lights pass, and now she was a woman of experience. She didn’t burst into flames or any other untoward result from leaping into the blind thrill of the moment. Nancy’s roommate Katy (Kathryn Adams), voices the audience’s estimation of Steve Duncan and counsels reason

You could draw a number out of a hat and get a nicer fellow than he is.

Nancy ignores the advice. Instead of interpreting her steadfast desire for Steve as evidence of a lack of expertise, perhaps once more, it’s less about Steve and more to the point about herself. Acknowledging his loathsome character means admitting that she may be forgettable or that he does not share the degree of importance she assigns to their rendezvous. Perhaps more ego preservation than true dedication, Nancy nonetheless crumbles when he spurns her when they do meet again. Any woman who has earned her stripes working the front lines of a nightclub knows the particular sting of having an ex-lover show up with another woman, when you automatically find disadvantage in the employee position. Nancy doesn’t have to wait on their table, but she presents a cake while singing happy birthday to Steve. She may have imagined singing for him (she with the lovely voice) but not under such circumstances. Preston Foster’s Steve recognises her, but proffers a blank ‘thank you’ that was meant to sound anonymous and deny their previous association.

Nancy’s cool composure disappears when Steve bids a hasty exit to another table with fiancée in tow. Preston Foster isn’t John Boles, the bloodless cretin Irene Dunne chained herself to in submission for Back Street. Foster plays a rich society man, but his accent retains no element of overly mannered society privilege. He sounds like a man who has known more than a few back streets himself, even if only in terms of a gambling saloon. Foster isn’t as attractive or strong a leading man as he was with Carole Lombard in Love Before Breakfast (1936), but he’s still good looking with broad shoulders. His character has far more self-command and confidence than his younger brother. You can see why Irene hangs on.

Robert Montgomery, as Steve’s brother Tommy, plays a reckless inebriate, a man with a string of breach-of-promise cases in his wake. He leads women to believe he’s interested in marriage when he only wants a good time, or else he lacks the clarity to determine if ladies are only interested in a pay-off. Unlike his older brother, he has the decency to pay women for their trouble. As I said in the opening, he abandons the security of playing a remote lush, closed off from connection or consequence. Tommy’s reputation shares none of his older brother’s gravitas or authority—he’s the disreputable clown destined for embarrassment or ruin. Yet his aloof persona melts with the milk of human kindness he extends when he empathises with Nancy. Tommy appears as though he’s suddenly awake from a booze drip somnambulism he functioned under until this point.  Nancy’s anguish sobers him. He halts the barfly quips and witnesses Irene Dunne’s humiliation and despair and then sweeps her out of the room for privacy, instructing her to have a good cry in the corner while he sits in front of the nightclub switchboard. For an over-indulged rich man who has a life of untrammelled ease from one cocktail to another, even five minutes as a switchboard operator merits undue stress. Lines buzz, patrons corral at the doorway asking for their numbers or wanting to know what booth to take, which could rattle even someone fortified by a few drinks. Guys like Tommy don’t volunteer for demanding tasks that will prove themselves inept and incapable, even if only for five minutes. When he does, it elevates his character more than the standard checklist of gallantries such as placing a pillow under her ankle. Spare a woman public collapse. Give her the ability to collect herself in private before she returns to brave-face pretence.

Nancy falls for him slowly, without the fantasy life from trains or throwing breadsticks at head waiters. When she tells Tommy that in the lives of all women, there’s unfinished business, she claims the right to have a past, to own her story apart from him, even if it’s with a man whose idea of the highest compliment lands in calling her a thoroughbred.

You can find Unfinished Business on YouTube.

I discuss Unfinished Business with partner Danielle Smith in episode 19 of Any Ladle’s Sweet that Dishes Out Some Gravy podcast.