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Movie Review – Penny Serenade (1941)
A poor melodrama (by today’s standards) in which Cary Grant gives a performance so good that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. George Stevens screenplay by Morrie Ryskind.
The entire film unfolds as a series of sketchy flashbacks, each triggered by the LP records Julie (Irene Dunne) reluctantly plays on a gramophone before she leaves her house immediately. The reason? There is nothing left in her marriage to keep her there. We will soon learn the reason and all the tragic events that led to that heartwarming moment.
The first few times the rotating LP record slips into a “memory hole,” where we enter a slice of life in Julie’s past, we enjoy it as a manifestation of a director’s creativity. But the sixth or seventh time it happens, we wonder how many times we have to pull the same random mechanical thought. It gets old fast and proves that consistency is not always a virtue.
Cary Grant stars as a young, cocky newspaper reporter Roger Adams who marries the love of his life Julie (played by Irene Dunne) on the eve of his move to Tokyo to take over his newspaper’s Japan bureau. It’s also Christmas Eve, with the obligatory snowfall (as in another Cary Grant film, THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948)).
After Roger is established in Tokyo, Julie joins a family of Japanese domestic servants in his newly wealthy digs. Julie is both delighted and amazed that Roger can afford that level of luxury on just a reporter’s salary. We are reminded of an earlier scene in which her boyfriend Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) warned her about hooking up with a journalist. Is there anything about Roger or the future that we have yet to know?
Two interesting things happen during the “Tokyo page” that call into question both Roger’s character and the strength of the script.
In the first scene, Roger tells Julie that he quit his job thanks to his family’s inheritance. Now they can go on a trip around the world before they settle down and raise a family, although during their time together Roger has shown some reluctance to happily suffer children (beach scene).
It turns out that what Roger calls his “inheritance” is about ten thousand dollars, which is reduced to $8,000 after he pays the rest of his bills. It’s sad for Julie. He accuses Roger of acting “childish”. We will see this pattern for the rest of the film: Roger will always come across as a man with big ideas and a lot of self-confidence who, however, cannot give bacon in the end.
The second important development in the “Tokyo page” is the earthquake that lifts their house. As we watch to see the “retribution” of this completely unexpected natural disaster, the film suddenly flashes back to San Francisco where Julie is in the hospital and she learns that she will no longer be able to bear children. But why they had to go to Japan to get to that point is a script question left unanswered. Couldn’t the same fate befall Julie if another accident happened closer to home? Why they had to go to Japan is unclear. The entire “Tokyo Episode” stands as a joke without a punch line.
The rest of this drama unfolds as the story of a couple’s desperate attempt to adopt a child, and once adopted, not lose it.
There’s another “baby sequence” in the middle of the movie that could easily be part of an unrelated comedy. Grant succeeds again in this series, almost paying homage to the early years he spent as a young pantomime and acrobat with Bob Pender’s troupe. We see a young couple going through a lot of anxiety in caring for their 5-week-old daughter. (Is he asleep or has he stopped breathing?)
They are so inexperienced, they don’t even know how to hold a baby and wash and change its diaper.
But we also can’t help but see the father-daughter bond developing between Grant and his baby daughter, even though he originally wanted a 2-year-old “with blue hair and blue eyes.”
During the first two years Roger’s newly formed weekly newspaper business, assisted by the press expert Applejack, seems to be making a living. But then his business suddenly went down and suddenly he became a man without income.
Since they are still in a “trial period” in their adoption process, the ever-vigilant adoption agency takes Roger to court in the person of Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi). The judge should return the girl because a family without income is not the place for a child to grow up.
However, in another great scene, Cary delivers this truly emotional monologue about the pain of being separated from her daughter, and the folly of repossessing a child like a repossessed car or furniture because the owner is late on a payment. . . His plea as a distraught father wins the day and the judge allows him to bring her back home.
After so many spinning gramophone records play out in flashbacks, we watch as the child grows up and attends a school Christmas play watched by her very proud parents despite a small mistake on stage that ruins her day. , all support. .
Then disaster strikes, as in a tragedy. We read in a letter he wrote to Miss Oliver that the child died of an illness. Since up to that point we haven’t seen a single scene where the child suffered from physical ailments, it feels like an artificial point like the previous “Tokyo earthquake”.
Roger and Julie’s union begins soon after the death of their daughter. The girl was their connection. It’s not that she’s gone, all that’s left behind are the memories and songs Julie plays on her gramophone for the last time – and we’re back to the present.
Just when we think their marriage is out the window forever (Roger literally carries his suitcases to the waiting car outside), they get this amazing call from Miss Oliver who gives them the good news: she has a 2-year-old son “with blue hair and blue eyes” and will they notice him? What a happy time and what a handy planning tool!
Of course they jump at the chance and change their minds on the spot – after they don’t want to break up. There is still hope for the future and we leave them as they discuss their ideas on how to redecorate the nursery for their new son.
A 7 out of 10 thanks to Cary Grant’s excellent performance despite the weak script and formula-driven direction.
MOVIE TRIVIA: Cary Grant was thrilled to share the lead role with Irene Dunne. He reportedly told Dunne that she was “the best smelling leading lady” he had ever worked with on a film.
TRIVIA: Philip Barry wrote the original stage plays for two films that helped define the film careers of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, who also starred in them: HOLIDAY (1938) and PHILADELPHIA STORY (1941).
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