by Irene Dunne
Saturday Evening Post
March 9, 1946
I had to fight hard to get my first role in the movies; the others came without special effort. Maybe that’s why Sabra, in Cimarron, is still my favorite part.
I had a contract with RKO to make one picture. As I left New York, a friend gave me Edna Ferber’s book Cimarron, remarking, “This story is going to be done on your lot.”
Reading the book on the train, I became convinced that the fascinating homespun pioneer woman was just right for me. I’d lived many years in the Middle West, had known simple, unsophisticated woman like Sabra and watched them mature and mellow with the years, as she did. Also, on the stage I’d played the heroine in Show Boat and I thought I knew Miss Ferber’s heroines well.
But RKO had signed me with musical-comedy roles in mind, and the executives didn’t know what to make of it when I showed up with that book under my arm. Cimarron was to be RKO’s big dramatic production of the year, with Richard Dix set to play the male lead. They seemed to think I was mad, yet they gave me a test along with twelve other leading women. Looking over the results, Richard Dix said he liked my work and suggested that we make another test together. When the exciting day came, I was dismayed to find I didn’t have the right kind of hat to wear. Finally I stationed myself outside the studio gate, watching women walk in, and, when at last a little old lady who made wigs came along wearing just the hat I had in mind, I persuaded her to lend it to me. Presently I had the part.
Well, there’s no experience quite like making your first picture–you have that beautiful flush then. I lost myself completely in being Sabra; I couldn’t have told you where the camera was. The height of the unforgettable experience was the scene where Sabra stands before the townspeople and thanks them for electing her to Congress. I’ve never used a diologue coach, but I wanted so much to make the superb speech effective that with my husband, Dr Frank Griffin, I practiced it over and over in our living room.
If Cimarron had failed, I probably would never have made another picture. One reason it won the Academy Award is that Sabra is one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman.