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The Great Lover

The Great Lover(1931)

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It took four films for Hollywood to showcase Irene Dunne's vocal talents. Even then, it wasn't at her home studio, RKO, which had signed her on the strength of her performances in such stage musicals as the legendary Show Boat, but MGM, where, on loan out, she made the 1931 romantic drama The Great Lover. It's the story of a fledgling opera singer torn between the established star to whom she owes her career and his understudy, who has nothing to offer but love.

In the early days of talking films, MGM had signed opera singers Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore in a plan to bring culture to the masses. When the masses decided the classical stars represented a form of culture they didn't want, the studio was left with projects purchased for them that needed more bankable stars. The Great Lover, for example, had been a Broadway hit in 1915 when produced by George M. Cohan and Sam Harris. Director Frank Lloyd had brought it to the silent screen in 1920, with the love story taking center stage.

Irene Dunne's casting as the young opera singer on the road to stardom was rather ironic. She had studied opera at the Chicago Musical College, but on her arrival in New York had realized she didn't really have the voice for it. Instead, she focused on musical theatre, where her smooth soprano landed her leading roles and eventually brought her to Hollywood. For The Great Lover, she had to polish up her operatic skills. The role required her to deliver the Edvard Grieg art song "Ich Liebe Dich", the Waltz from Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette and a duet from Mozart's Don Giovanni. Although never noted primarily as a musical performer on screen, she would find a better vocal match in Jerome Kern's songs for films like Roberta (1935), Show Boat (1936) and High, Wide, and Handsome (1937).

Joining Dunne for the Mozart duet is Adolphe Menjou, another performer not known for his musical performances. He had won the role on the strength of his silent performances as a debonair lover in films such as Charles Chaplin's A Woman of Paris (1923) and D.W. Griffith's The Sorrows of Satan (1926). The coming of sound had pushed him to supporting roles, usually as the second lead who loses the leading lady, a type he established by watching Marlene Dietrich go off after Gary Cooper in Morocco (1930). Ironically, he had played just such a role in support of Tibbett and Moore in New Moon (1930), the flop that sent MGM looking for more bankable stars for films like The Great Lover.

To many critics, unaware of the dazzling career Dunne would enjoy in later years, her performance in The Great Lover barely registered. Although Variety praised her "quiet and persuasive grace," the New York Times dismissed her as adding little to the film, while also noting that she was saddled with some badly written lines. Even with that handicap she registers better with contemporary audiences than comics Cliff Edwards, Roscoe Ates and Herman Bing, whose now-dated lowbrow antics were included at the insistence of MGM production head Irving G. Thalberg to help the film appeal to a broader audience.

The Great Lover's best notices went to Menjou and Olga Baclanova, cast as his spurned mistress and here billed solely as "Baclanova." The actress once billed as the "Russian Tigress" had studied with Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre before defecting to the U.S., where a leading performance in the Los Angeles company of Max Reinhardt's The Miracle had brought her to the attention of the Hollywood studios. After triumphs in silent films like The Man Who Laughs and The Docks of New York (both 1928), she had trouble adjusting to talking films. Her thick accent and stagy mannerisms limited her to supporting roles, particularly as exotic characters such as the temperamental diva in love with Menjou in The Great Lover. She would be best remembered for her performance as the vamp who seduces one of the little people in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932). Baclanova eventually left Hollywood to focus on stage work, starring on Broadway and in touring productions.

Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Gene Markey, Edgar Allan Woolf
Based on the play by Frederic Hatton, Leo Ditrichstein and Fanny Hatton
Cinematography: Merritt B. Gerstad
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Adolphe Menjou (Jean Pourel), Irene Dunne (Diana Page), Ernest Torrence (Potter), Neil Hamilton (Carlo Jonino), Olga Baclanova (Savarova), Cliff Edwards (Finney), Hale Hamilton (Stapleton), Roscoe Ates (Rosco), Herman Bing (Losseck).

by Frank Miller

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