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Movie Review – Penny Serenade (1941)
An unremarkable (by today’s standards) parenting melodrama in which Cary Grant delivers a performance so good that he was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. George Stevens directed the script by Morrie Ryskind.
The entire movie unfolds as a series of consecutive flashbacks, each triggered by the LP record Julie (Irene Dunne) plays on the gramophone before she leaves her apartment. The reason? It seems there is nothing left in his marriage to keep him there. Soon we will learn the reason and all the horrible events that led to that sad moment.
The first couple of times the LP record spins melts into a “memory hole” where we enter a slice of life in Julie’s past, enjoying it as an expression of the director’s creativity. But the sixth or seventh time it happens, we wonder how many times we have to suffer the same idea relentlessly. It gets old quickly proving that consistency is not always a virtue.
Cary Grant plays young newspaper reporter and hero Roger Adams who marries the love of his life Julie (played by Irene Dunne) the night before he leaves Tokyo to take over the office of his Japanese newspaper. It also happens to be Christmas Eve, complete with the obligatory snowfall (as in another Cary Grant movie, THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948)).
Once established in Tokyo, Roger has Julie join him in his new digs complete with a family of Japanese domestic servants. Julie is delighted and amazed that Roger can maintain that level of luxury on just a reporter’s salary. We recall an earlier scene where her friend Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) warned her not to get involved with the reporter. Is there anything shady about Roger or his past that we might know about yet?
Two interesting things happen during the “Tokyo sequence” that bring out both Roger’s character and the strength of the script.
In the first scene, Roger announces to Julie that he quit his job because of his family inheritance. Now they can travel around the world before they settle down and raise a family, although during their courtship Roger showed his reluctance to suffer from children (seaside) with joy.
It turns out that what Roger calls his “inheritance” is about ten thousand dollars, which shrinks further to $8,000 after he pays off his outstanding debts. It hurts Julie. He accuses Roger of acting “childishly.” We will see this pattern throughout the movie: Roger will always come across as a man with great ideas and great confidence, who, however, cannot deliver the bacon in the end.
The second important development in the “Tokyo sequence” is the earthquake that lifts their home. As we continue to watch to see the “payoff” of this unexpected natural disaster, the film suddenly returns to San Francisco where Julie is in the hospital and learns that she will never be able to bear children again. But why they went to Japan to get to that point is a question the script left unanswered. Couldn’t Julie have met the same fate if she had another accident closer to home? Why they traveled all the way to Japan is unclear. Every “Tokyo episode” seems like a joke without a punch line.
Part of this play continues as the story of a married couple trying to find a child, and after being adopted, not to lose him.
There is another “baby sequence” in the middle of the film that could be part of an unrelated comedy. Grant also excels in this sequence, almost paying homage to the early years he spent during his youth as a pantomime and acrobat with Bob Pender’s troupe. We see this young couple going through a lot of stress in caring for their 5-week-old adopted daughter. (Are you asleep or have you stopped breathing?)
They are inexperienced, they don’t know how to hold a baby or wash him and change his diaper.
But we can’t help but notice the progression of the father-daughter relationship between Grant and his infant daughter even though he initially proposed to a 2-year-old boy with “black hair and blue eyes.”
In the first few years Roger’s fledgling newspaper business, aided by veteran reporter Applejack, seems to be coming to an end. But then his business suddenly goes down and suddenly he is a bankrupt man.
Since they are still in the “trial” phase of their adoption program, the babysitting agent Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) takes Roger to court. The judge should return the girl because a family without income is not a place any child should grow up in.
However, Cary’s contribution is in a very good place, it offers really painful feelings about the pain of being separated from his daughter, and the stupidity of taking a child back like a car or stolen furniture because the owner is late with the payment. . His appeal as a heartbroken father wins the day and the judge allows him to return home.
After a lot of spinning gramophone records that are spent in flashback scenes, we watch the child grow up and take a small part in the Christmas play at school as his proud parents watch him and give their support even though there is a small mistake in the stage that ruins his day. .
Then disaster struck, as disaster should. We learned from a letter written to Miss Oliver that the child had died following an illness. Up to that time we have not seen a single scene where a child suffered from any physical ailments, this also appears as something constructed like the previous “Tokyo earthquake”.
After the death of their daughter Roger and Julie the union begins to deteriorate quickly. The girl was the bond that kept them together. It’s not like she’s gone, all that’s left are the memories and the songs Julie played for the last time on her gramophone – and we’re zooming back now.
Just when we think their marriage is out the window forever (Roger is actually carrying his suitcases to the car waiting outside), they get this amazing call from Miss Oliver who gives them the good news: she has a 2-year-old boy with curly blonde hair and blue eyes and are they interested in adopting him? It’s a good time and the right planning tool!
Yes, they jump at the chance to change their minds right away – they don’t want to be separated anyway. There is still hope for the future and we leave them as they discuss their ideas on how to decorate a baby room for their new boy.
7 out of 10 thanks to the excellent performance by Cary Grant and despite the weak script and formula-driven direction.
MOVIE TRIVIA: Cary Grant was thrilled to share the lead roles with Irene Dunne. He reportedly told Dunne that she was “the best smelling lady” he worked with on the film.
TRIVIA: Philip Barry wrote the screenplays for two films that helped define the movie careers of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn who both starred in them: HOLIDAY (1938) and PHILADELPHIA STORY (1941).
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