Penny Serenade, 1941, Columbia Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 120 minutes.
In a series of flashbacks, brought to mind by favorite songs, Julie Adams (Irene Dunne) recollects the story of her marriage to Roger (Cary Grant), a marriage that now seems doomed to fail. Telling her old friend Applejack Carney (Edgar Buchanan) that she and Roger “don’t need each other anymore, and when that happens to two people, there’s nothing left” she makes plans to catch a late train out of town.
Julie and Roger first met when she worked at a music store, and Roger’s attention was captured by a skipping record, “You Were Meant for Me.” They begin dating, and on one occasion, Julie reveals she wants children. Roger is more reluctant, appearing determined to remain a bachelor.
That all changes one New Year’s Eve when Roger bursts into Julie’s party and tells her he is being sent to Japan as the Asian correspondent for his newspaper. He proposes, and the two marry that night. It’s three months before Julie can join him in Japan however, and when she arrives, she announces she’s pregnant. Roger has had an apparent change of heart, although now his flagrant spending habits are troublesome to Julie.
Tragically, Julie loses the baby during an earthquake, and at a later hospital visit in San Francisco she learns she can never have children. Julie and Roger are starting a new life together in the small town of Rosalia, where Roger has purchased the local newspaper. Applejack has joined them from New York, and it is he who suggests adoption to the couple.
They seek a two-year-old boy with curly hair and blue eyes, a child who would be the same age their own would have been. That is not in the cards, however. It takes some convincing on the part of Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi), the local orphanage administrator, for them to agree to taking in a five-week-old girl. This baby is, she promises, “like no other child.”
Their lives seems perfect at this point, but life has its surprises.
Dunne and Grant shared a great mutual respect for each other, with Dunne frequently quoting Grant, saying “I had the best timing for comedy of any actress he ever knew.” She had equally kind words for him, relaying in a 1979 radio interview, “Cary was a lot of fun…he was a very professional actor…there was always a lighter mood.”
In that same interview she praised George Stevens, saying, “I knew if I could choose the right director, I would have nothing to worry about…I chose George, and he chose me.” Dunne and Stevens chose each other again in I Remember Mama, also a drama.
In a New York Sun interview, Dunne noted that, “the picture, although its story is drama, has more laughs than most comedies.” It is true the film has numerous comical moments, but the humor is gentler than that which is found in screwball comedies, for example, The Awful Truth or My Favorite Wife, which also starred Dunne and Grant.
Penny Serenade received one nomination for an Academy Award, Best Actor for Grant. This was one of two nominations he would receive in his career, and while he won neither of them, he did receive an honorary Academy Award in 1970 “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues.”
Penny Serenade is sentimental but not maudlin, with fine performances by all. It is the very human experiences and emotions of the players that make it a film well worth the watch.