Irene Manning is perhaps best remembered for a single, small supporting role in one of the greatest musicals of all time, but she had a long career as a glamorous singer and actress that spanned multiple genres in Hollywood and on Broadway.
Born in Cincinnati in either 1912 or 1916 (both dates have been reported in various media), Inez Harvuot was raised in a musical family and studied opera as a young woman. Seeking stage and film stardom, she took the stage name “Hope Manning,” and in 1936, she made her film debut in The Old Corral, one of Gene Autry’s many popular B-westerns. That film is best known now for featuring a young (and uncredited) Roy Rogers as a singing supporting player. But Manning makes a mark as Autry’s crooning love interest, Eleanor, whom he falls for while protecting her after she witnesses a murder.
After two more low-budget films the following year, the newly rechristened Irene Manning headed for the stage, becoming a featured star of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. There, Manning appeared in a number of musical productions, including Gilbert and Sullivan’s classic H.M.S. Pinafore and Straus’ operetta The Chocolate Soldier.
A couple of years later, Warner Bros. came calling, marking her return to film for the first time in more than five years. In 1942, Manning was cast as the brilliant Broadway star Fay Templeton in Michael Curtiz’ musical biopic Yankee Doodle Dandy, a fictionalized account of the life of composer George M. Cohan. The real-life Templeton died three years before the film’s release and did not live to see Manning’s larger-than-life portrayal of her. In the film, Manning sings Templeton’s signature Cohan-penned tunes “So Long, Mary” and “Mary is a Grand Old Name” from the musical Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway. Manning’s time in the film is relatively brief, but she is nonetheless brilliant as the vain and popular performer who helps bring James Cagney’s Cohan his first true stage success.
During World War II, Manning contributed to the war effort by forming an all-woman USO unit, traveling throughout England performing for the troops and even appearing with perennial USO entertainer Bob Hope. Like many of her fellow Hollywood stars, she also had a cameo in the 1944 star-studded film Hollywood Canteen. Additionally, Manning participated in propaganda efforts through her work with Glenn Miller and his orchestra; she recorded several Miller tunes in German, which were then played for Axis troops. Manning’s collaboration with Miller was sadly brief; soon after they recorded together in 1944, Miller’s plane disappeared over the English channel, and all on board were thereafter assumed to have been killed in a crash.
Through the mid-1940s, Manning filmed more than half a dozen more movies, including The Big Shot (1942), in which she plays Humphrey Bogart’s love interest, and Shine On, Harvest Moon (1944) opposite fellow famed singing star Dennis Morgan. In 1945, she starred in her final big-screen production, Escape in the Desert, a B-level remake of The Petrified Forest (1936).
In the late 1940s, as her film career dried up and Warner Bros. declined to renew her contract, Manning moved to the stage once more, this time appearing on Broadway as an original cast member in the Lerner and Loewe musical The Day Before Spring. Manning then moved to London, where she starred on stage in a revival of DuBarry Was a Lady. It was while in England that Manning made her first foray into television, starring in her own 1951 BBC series, An American in England. She returned to the United States soon after, and throughout the early 1950s, Manning popped up on several television anthology shows including the Schlitz Playhouse and Producers’ Showcase. She retired from television in 1955, spending her later years on the stage in and around San Francisco. She also became a sought-after vocal coach and acting teacher.
Over the years, Manning was sometimes painted as demanding and diva-like in her behavior. But she was also more than willing to lend a hand to fellow talented performers. For instance, Manning reportedly assisted future film star and fellow opera singer Mario Lanza at the beginning of his career, scoring him an (ultimately unfruitful) audition with her own boss at the time, Jack Warner. Though Warner didn’t snatch up the young singer, Lanza eventually went on to become a big star at MGM for a few years in the early 1950s.
Irene Manning passed away in June 2004. She was ninety-one years old. But her films, particularly her scene-stealing role in Yankee Doodle Dandy, still serve to keep her memory alive. “[Yankee] plays every 4th of July,” she once reflected in an interview, “so I have a little immortality there.”