Like most of Irene Dunne’s Pre-code’s and early films before she made her more popular ones such as The Awful Truth and Theodora Goes Wild, The Secret of Madame Blanche is hard to find. In August Dunne was one of the actors included in TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Two months later I am finally getting around to watching the film on my DVR. The Secret of Madame Blanche, like all her other films, shows what an incredible and underrated actress Irene Dunne was/is.
Sally Sanders (Dunne) is part of a stage from America is playing a few shows across Europe in the late 1800s. The show makes its first stop in London. A man named Leonard St. John has seen the show and has fallen in love with Sally. They run into each other one night in a thick fog. Leonard has just stepped out of the theater that Sally is trying to find. Leonard tells a cab driver to take them for a ride for ten minutes before Sally has to be at the theater. Leonard asks Sally out that night after show. Sally gets upset because Leonard most likely thinks that she is easy and she is not. Eventually she agrees to go out with him. Sally is not really enjoying the night club they are at and she leaves. Leonard follows her to her place. He rips into saying he has never been so insulted that a woman ran out on him.
As in all love stories the guy gets the girl. Sally stays behind while the chorus show travels around Europe. Leonard has never told his father Aubrey (Lionel Atwill) that he was seeing a woman never mind that he has been married to the girl for a month. Aubrey comes to his son’s apartment. Leonard has gone down to the bank and Sally is singing around the house so she does not hear Aubrey knock and he walks in. At first Aubrey is not bothered that his song has a mistress but once Leonard tells his father that Sally is his wife he has a fit. He tells his son he is cutting off his money he does not want his son married to some tart.
Leonard and Sally go away to France for a while. Sally finds out she is going to have a baby but never gets a chance to tell Leonard. They run out of money so Leonard decides to go to his father to see if there is any way he can get any money from him. Aubrey refuses. Leonard is upset with his father over the fact he was raised to just be a gentleman he has no skills to earn any money. Aubrey says he raised him to be a gentleman to marry a rich woman. The only way he will give his son money is if he gives up Sally and leaves her. Leonard cannot deal with not having any money and the thought of not having Sally in his life. That night he kills himself.
Sally find out that Leonard is dead in a French newspaper after the hotel desk clerk what the newspaper article says. She had written to Leonard that what she could not tell him was that she was having a baby. Aubrey gets the letter and immediately has a private detective after her. The only place Sally could get a job as a singer was at a night club with a bad reputation. Three months after the baby is born Aubrey goes with his lawyer to take the baby away from Sally. They take the baby away while Sally is at work and the owner of the place she is staying at is watching the baby. The woman watching the baby runs to the club to tell Sally about the baby and Sally runs home right away. Aubrey and the lawyer tell her that they have a court order to take the boy away because she is an unfit mother working in a night club of ill repute. Sally goes to London to try to just see her son once more but Aubrey refuses and tells her if she tries to cause trouble by getting a lawyer or coming to the house he will have the police on her.
Twenty years come and go and World War I is devastating France. Leonard Jr. is now a playboy young man. He has been stationed in France. He has found a nice young girl in the village. Leonard Jr. sneaks out of the barracks and to drink all night. As the night goes on he gets drunk and out of control. He wants to take the girl upstairs for the night when she does not want to. A man punches Leonard Jr. out. Sally, now older and harder and going by the name Madame Marie Blanche, comes down the stairs telling a man to put the boy into her office. Sally asks the girl what Leonard’s name is and she realizes he is her son.
When Leonard Jr. wakes up he is in Sally’s room. She comes in with coffee for him to sober up. He comments that every time he did something bad his grandfather would always remind him of his mother who was no good and eventually died. They hear a banging on the door to the inn. The girl’s father is looking for the soldier who was nasty to his daughter. Sally tries to tell him that the soldier has gone and just then Leonard Jr. walks down the stairs. The father chases Leonard Jr. up to Sally’s room where they fight. A gun goes off, Leonard Jr. opens the door he has killed the father. Sally gets her son out of the inn before the police come.
In court Sally has claimed that she was the one who killed the father. She says that the man come into the inn looking for the soldier, he would not leave and came after her. She shot the man in self defense. The prosecutor attacks every statement. No one can come up with a reason for why Sally defended Leonard Jr. until the prosecutor says that the only reason she covered up was because Leonard is her son. At this point there is no denying anything. Leonard Jr. had wanted to tell the truth all along but Aubrey refused it. He does not care if he is found guilty because he is happy to see his mother. Aubrey goes to get up from his seat but Leonard Jr. yells at him to not come near him.
Leonard Jr. has to serve two years. He asks Sally if she could wait that long for him. She tells him she has waited twenty years for him what is two more years.
The more I see Irene Dunne in her films the more I cannot comprehend how this woman never won an Oscar in her life. That is such a ridiculous shame and a total crime on the part of Hollywood. Dunne was fantastic. My favorite part of the film was when Sally is sitting in her room with Leonard Jr. when he is a baby. Dunne is just talking to him and brushing his hair it was like she was speaking to her own baby she was just so natural and real and adorable. Dunne was so good I was near tears when Sally was told she could not see her baby. She rips your heart out when she finds out Leonard Jr. is her son and she says "Oh, my baby boy, what have they done to you?". If the Academy Awards had been fair Irene Dunne would have had won at least three awards in her career. She should have been nominated for The Secret of Madame Blanche I do know how she was not.
Lionel Atwill I can say was a great actor because he just made you hate him to no end. I wanted to reach my hand into the film and beat the crap out of him! I like Lionel Atwill he was the perfect bad guy and of the films I have seen him in he has never been better as character type.
The Secret of Madame Blanche is a wonderful film not so much for the story but for the acting by Irene Dunne and Lionel Atwill. If TCM ever airs The Secret of Madame Blanche absolutely see it. I am hoping one day someone will wake up and realize that Irene Dunne is one of the greatest screen actresses and release this film along with several more of her films on DVD.