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Film Review – Penny Serenade (1941)

An unremarkable (by today’s standards) child-rearing melodrama in which Cary Grant gives such a good performance that he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor. George Stevens directed the script by Morrie Ryskind.

The entire film plays out as a series of linear flashbacks, each triggered by the LP recording a heartbroken Julie (Irene Dunne) playing on a gramophone just before leaving her forever home. The reason? She doesn’t seem to have anything left in her marriage to keep her there. Soon we will know the reason why and all the tragic events that led her to that melancholic moment.

The first few times the revolving LP dissolves into a “memory hole” through which we enter a part of Julie’s past life, 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 suffer through the same unrelenting mechanical idea. She ages pretty quickly proving that consistency isn’t always a virtue.

Cary Grant stars as handsome young reporter Roger Adams, who marries the love of his life, Julie (played by Irene Dunne), on the eve of his departure for Tokyo to take over his newspaper’s Japan office. It’s also Christmas night, with the obligatory snowfall (as in another Cary Grant film, THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948)).

Once established in Tokyo, Roger has Julie join him on his opulent new digs with a family of Japanese servants. Julie is delighted and in awe that Roger can maintain that level of luxury on just a reporter’s salary. We remember an earlier scene in which his friend Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) warns him not to get involved with a journalist. Is there something shady about Roger or the past that we already know about?

Two interesting things happen during the “Tokyo sequence” that call into question both Roger’s character and the strength of the script.

In the first scene, Roger announces to Julie that he has quit his job thanks to his family’s inheritance. Now they can travel around the world before settling down and starting a family, although during their dating period, Roger showed some reluctance to suffer childish teasing (the beach scene) with gusto.

It turns out that what Roger calls “an inheritance” is only about $10,000, further reduced to $8,000 after his outstanding bills are paid. It’s a disappointment for Julie. She accuses Roger of acting “childishly”. We’ll see this pattern throughout the rest of the film: Roger will always come off as a man with great ideas and a lot of self-confidence who, however, can’t deliver the bacon at the end.

The second major event in the “Tokyo Sequence” is the earthquake that devastates your house. As we continue to watch to see the “payoff” of this totally unexpected natural disaster, the film abruptly cuts back to San Francisco, where Julie is in a hospital and learns that she will no longer be able to have children. But why they had to go to Japan to get to that point is a debatable script question that remains unanswered. Couldn’t Julie suffer the same fate if she had another accident closer to home? It is not clear why they had to go all the way to Japan. The entire “Tokyo episode” stands out as a joke without a joke.

The rest of this drama unfolds as the story of a married couple’s desperate effort to adopt a girl and, once adopted, not to lose her.

There’s another “baby sequence” in the middle of the movie that could easily be part of an unrelated comedy. Grant stands out again in this sequence, almost paying homage to his early teenage years as a pantomime and acrobat with Bob Pender’s troupe. We see the young couple going through a lot of the anxieties of caring for their 5-week-old adopted daughter. (Is she asleep or has she stopped breathing?)

They are so inexperienced that they don’t even know how to hold a baby or bathe and change a baby’s diaper.

But we also can’t help but notice the progress of a father-daughter bond between Grant and his young daughter despite originally asking for a 2-year-old “with curly blonde hair and blue eyes.”

For the first two years, Roger’s newly established weekly newspaper business, aided by veteran press officer Applejack, seems to be making ends meet. But then his business takes a sudden downturn and he’s suddenly a man with no income.

Since they are still on a “trial period” in their adoption process, the ever-vigilant adoption agency in the person of Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) takes Roger to court. The judge is supposed to return the girl because a family with no income is not a suitable place for any child to grow up.

However, Cary Grant, in another excellent scene, gives this really emotional monologue about the pain of being separated from his daughter and the absurdity of repossessing a child like a repossessed car or piece of furniture because the owner is behind in the years. Payments. . Her appeal as a bereaved parent wins the day and the judge allows him to take her back home.

After so many spinning gramophone records dissolving into flashbacks, we see the girl grow up and take a small role in a school Christmas play as her very proud parents look on and give her all their support despite a small mishap on stage that ruins his day. .

Then disaster strikes, as it should in a tragedy. We read in a letter written to Miss Oliver that the child has died of illness. Since we haven’t seen a single scene in which the boy suffered from any physical ailments up to that point, this also seems as contrived a plot point as the “Tokyo earthquake” above.

After the death of their daughter, Roger and Julie’s union quickly begins to fall apart. The girl was the link that held them together. It is not that she is gone, all that is left behind are the memories and the songs that Julie played for the last time on her gramophone, and we return to the present.

Just when we think their marriage has gone out the window for good (Roger is actually carrying his bags to the car waiting outside), they get this amazing call from Miss Oliver, who breaks the good news: she has a 2-year-old boy. years old “with curly blonde hair and blue eyes” and would be interested in adopting him? What a lucky timing and what a convenient plot device!

Of course, they seize the opportunity and change their minds on the spot; after all, they do not want to part. There is still hope for the future and we leave you as you discuss your ideas on how to redecorate the nursery for your new child.

A 7 out of 10 thanks to the excellent performance of Cary Grant and despite the weak script and formulaic direction.

MOVIE TRIVIA: Cary Grant was very pleased to share the lead roles with Irene Dunne. He reportedly told Dunne that she was the “best smelling leading lady” he ever worked with in a movie.

TRIVIA: Philip Barry wrote the original stage scores for the two films that helped define the film careers of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, who starred in both: HOLIDAY (1938) and PHILADELPHIA STORY (1941).

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