You Were Meant For Me: Penny Serenade (1941)

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Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens.  Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-Ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.

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After parting with RKO, George Stevens signed with Columbia on May 14, 1940 to produce and direct two features. Harry Cohn wooed him with a promise never to speak to him on the set, which was reportedly honored. Stevens presented Cohn with the Martha Cheavens’ short story “Penny Serenade”, which was to be published in McCalls magazine. Columbia purchased the rights for $25,000 and hired Cheavens as a script consultant. Morrie Ryskind expanded her story into a feature-length screenplay, which tracks the travails of Julie (Dunne) and Roger (Grant) Adams, a married couple at the breaking point. Julie is about to leave him when she spies a scrapbook/record album that collected the history of their love alongside the hits of the day. In a series of flashbacks set to those pop hits, Stevens traces the bloom and decay of their bond, from the meet-cute at a record store to their grieving lows of poverty and irreperable personal loss.

In The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey would play a piano on set to loosen up his actors and stir improvisational ideas. When they cooked up something funny, they would shoot and move on. Stevens was a far more deliberate worker, who Dunne described as “just the opposite” of McCarey, “very slow. But he came well prepared…we would have rehearsals on the set, and…discuss details of how a scene would be played.” He was notorious for shooting a lot of coverage and running up film costs, waiting for the moment in his head to appear in front of the camera. Stevens uses crowded compositions in Penny Serenade, life a series of obstacles Julie and Roger must traverse. Before Roger can make his marriage proposal on New Year’s Eve, he has to navigate packed rooms in which he is continually interrupted. It is only when they squeeze onto the fire escape that Julie can say yes. At their most peaceful moment, when George gets a reporting job in Japan, an earthquake levels their home as Julie is pinned by debris on the staircase.

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He also deploys intricately choreographed long takes in the parenting scenes. The camera is fixed, but Grant and Dunne are in constant motion. In one slow-burn gag, Dunne is freaking out about bathing her newly adopted baby, approaching as if it were a caged lion. Grant watches with queasy anticipation next to her, and both of them fail so badly in this simple task that their assistant Applejack (the wonderful Edgar Buchanan) has to take over. The film is unique in how it undercuts traditional notions of motherhood. Dunne does not instantly become nurturing, but has to learn how to care for the child. She is as terrified of hurting the baby as Grant, who handles the kid with goggle eyed terror.

This is one of Grant’s greatest performances, for which he was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar (he lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York). Roger is a playboy crushed by the Depression, unable to provide for his wife and child. Grant has to divert his natural charisma into something darker as the film progresses, culminating in a pained monologue to a judge about to reject their adoption application. It is a plea of pure abjection, Grant bows his head and flexes his body inward, making himself looks small so his emotions seem enormous and true by comparison. It works beautifully, and as Orson Welles said of Make Way For Tomorrow, it could make a stone cry.

The Columbia publicity director at the time, Lou Smith, wrote in a private memo that “I cried three times during the showing and everyone around me was mopping up too…Instead of having actors jump off cliffs, this one will have the audience jumping off.” Penny Serenade is a traditional teajerker, with a plot that turns on unthinkable tragedy and improbable coincidence. But Stevens, Grant and Dunne treat the material with utmost respect, etching a film of bone-deep melancholy about the terror of child-rearing and the greater horror of losing that child. By the end Stevens shoots the Adams home as a tomb, shadows creeping in on Julie and Roger. Only a miracle can save their marriage, and Penny Serenade is one of those movies that makes you want to believe.

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9 Responses You Were Meant For Me: Penny Serenade (1941)
Posted By Doug : August 20, 2013 11:53 am

Thank you, Mr. Sweeney, for this-I only watched it once, years ago, and was emotionally touched by the simple story. I am glad to hear that it is being rescued by Olive Films from the public domain ‘dupes’. Olive has done a fine job with other films, and I’m sure that this one will also be well presented.

Posted By robbushblog : August 20, 2013 2:23 pm

I have never seen this one due to my lack of desire for watching weepers. My mom has refused to ever watch this movie again because she was so affected by it (The same can be said of Psycho. My mom is a wuss.). However, because I have heard how great Cary Grant is in this movie, I will have to give it a chance once there is a good, clean copy available for viewing.

Posted By Kingrat : August 20, 2013 7:56 pm

There are some very well made scenes in PENNY SERENADE, such as the school pageant, but the combination of sitcom and weepie does not work for me. A little comedy would be fine, but the scene when the baby arrives, which you mentioned, is very broad comedy. Some good parts but, to me, an unsatisfying whole. I don’t really like Cary Grant’s “Give me the Oscar!” moment when he pleads with the judge.

Posted By gail erichsen : August 22, 2013 7:43 am

this is one of my best favorites,i truly loved it,seen it many many years ago and have tried to find it. so I thank you so much–yes it is weepy and on and on, it made me happy and laugh, as said I loved all of it. I just told my daught about so many of these old time lovely movies—thank heaven she agrees—–yes I cried, here I am age 74 and want to own it. one other one is the movie [so big] with jane wyman and sterling hayden] [the five little peppers] good wonderful memories. thank you gail erichsen

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 22, 2013 8:16 am

I love this movie, but I wouldn’t call My Favorite Wife childless-in that film, Grant and Dunne are the parents of two children, a son and a daughter.

Posted By mindyp51 : August 22, 2013 9:54 am

My favorite of the Irene Dunne/Cary Grant pairings. Both deliver amazing performances, and while I’m not surprised Grant got his first Best Actor nomination (for which I believe he should have won over Cooper, who really never impressed me much), I am surprised that Dunne was overlooked. Grant’s dramatic abilities are showcased here, as they were, btw, in MR. LUCKY, another favorite (and overlooked) film starring Grant and Lorraine Day.

The scene in which Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) bathes the baby is priceless, capturing the fear and feelings of inability of new parents everywhere.

Does anybody know if Olive’s Blue-Ray edition will also be released in DVD format?

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 22, 2013 10:06 am

Thanks for the correction, Jenn, I’ve updated the article.

And Mindy, yes, Olive is also releasing the film on DVD. Here is the link:

http://store.olivefilms.com/Drama.56/Olive_Films.38/Penny_Serenade__DVD_.5712.html

Posted By Aunt Charlotte Vail : August 23, 2013 11:36 am

Great film. George Stevens, perhaps not as well remembered today of other directors of that era made a movie that made me really belive that Grant and Dunne were married. Many memorable moments,and touching scenes. Roger Adams pleading for his child is not a give me an Oscar moment! Listen to what he is saying to the judge about being a parent. Classic.

Posted By swac44 : August 23, 2013 3:16 pm

A friend recently bequeathed me his old laserdisc copy of this when the new blu-ray was announced (it’s one of his favourites, he even has an original lobby card for it). Guess I’ll experience it for the first time in my favourite lo-fi format.

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