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Movie Review – Penny Serenade (1941)
An unremarkable (by today’s standards) parenting melodrama in which Cary Grant gives a performance so good it earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. George Stevens script by Maury Raiskind.
The entire film unfolds as a series of linear flashbacks, each triggered by the LP records Julia (Irene Dunne) plays on the gramophone just before she leaves her home forever. The reason? There seems to be nothing in her marriage to keep her there anymore. We will soon find out why and all the tragic events that led him to this sad moment.
The first few times the rotating LP record dissolves into a “memory hole”, through which we enter a slice of Julia’s past life, enjoying it as an expression of the director’s creativity. But by the sixth or seventh time that happens, we wonder how many times we have to suffer the same relentlessly mechanical idea. It gets old pretty quickly, proving that consistency isn’t always a virtue.
Cary Grant plays dashing young newspaper reporter Roger Adams, who marries the love of his life, Julia (played by Irene Dunne), before heading to Tokyo to take over his paper’s Japan office. It’s also Christmas night with the obligatory snowfall (as in another Cary Grant film, THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1948)).
Once Roger is established in Tokyo, Julia joins him in his new opulent digs with a family of Japanese housekeepers. Julie is both delighted and surprised that Roger can afford such 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 a journalist. Is there anything else about Roger or the past that we 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 tells Julie that he has quit his job because of a family inheritance. Now they get to travel the world before they settle down and start a family, although during their introduction Roger shows some reluctance to put up with the children’s antics (beach scene).
It turns out that what Roger calls his “inheritance” is only about ten thousand dollars, which shrinks to $8,000 after he pays his outstanding bills. For Julia, this is a disappointment. He accuses Roger of acting “childish”. We’ll see this pattern throughout the rest of the film: Roger will always come across as a man with grand ideas and a lot of self-confidence, who still fails to deliver the bacon at the end.
The second major event in the “Tokyo sequence” is an earthquake that levels their house. As we continue to watch to see the “payback” of this completely unexpected natural disaster, the film suddenly shifts back to San Francisco, where Julia lies in the hospital and 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 moot point in the script that remains unanswered. Couldn’t Julia suffer the same fate if she had another accident closer to home? Why they had to go all the way to Japan is unclear. The whole “Tokyo Episode” comes off as a joke without a punch line.
The rest of the drama unfolds as a story of a married couple’s desperate efforts to adopt a child and not lose him after adoption.
There’s another “baby sequence” in the middle of the movie that could easily be part of an unrelated comedy. Grant again excels in this sequence, almost paying homage to his early teenage years as a mime and acrobat in Bob Pender’s troupe. We see the young couple go through many worries while taking care of their 5-week-old daughter. (Is she asleep or has she stopped breathing?)
They are so inexperienced that they don’t even know how to hold or bathe and change diapers.
But we also can’t help but notice the progression of the father-daughter bond between Grant and his young daughter, despite initially asking for a 2-year-old boy “with blond curly hair and blue eyes.”
For the first couple of years, Roger’s fledgling weekly newspaper business, aided by press veteran Applejack, seems to be making ends meet. But then his business goes through a sudden downturn and suddenly he is a man with no income.
As they still have 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 should take the girl back because a family without income is not a good place for any child to grow up.
However, Cary Grant delivers this truly emotional monologue in another brilliant scene about the pain of being separated from his daughter and the absurdity of taking away a child as if she were a car or a piece of furniture repossessed because the owner defaulted on payments. . His appeal as a heartbroken father wins the day and the judge allows him to take her home.
After so many spinning gramophone records that dissolve into flashback scenes, we watch the kid grow up and take part in a Christmas play at school while her very proud parents watch her and give her all their support, despite a minor accident on stage that ruins her day. .
Then disaster strikes, as a tragedy should. We read in a letter written to Miss Oliver that the child had died of sickness. Since we haven’t seen a single scene of the child suffering from physical ailments so far, this too is as contrived a plot point as the earlier ‘Tokyo Earthquake’.
After the death of their daughter, Roger and Julie’s union begins to quickly disintegrate. The girl was the link that held them together. It’s not like she’s gone, all that’s left are the memories and the songs Julia plays on her gramophone for the last time – and we’re zooming in on the present.
Just when we think their marriage has gone out the window forever (Roger is actually carrying her suitcases to a car waiting outside), they get this amazing call from Miss Oliver, who gives them the good news: she has a 2-year-old a boy. blonde curly hair and blue eyes” and would they be interested in adopting her? What good timing and a convenient plot device!
Of course, they take a chance and change their minds on the spot – after all, they don’t want to be separated. There’s still hope for the future, and we leave them as they discuss their ideas on how to redecorate a baby room for their new baby boy.
7 out of 10 thanks to Cary Grant’s excellent performance and despite the weak script and formula driven direction.
MOVIE HIGHLIGHTS: Cary Grant was delighted to co-star with Irene Dunne. He reportedly told Danna that she was “the best smelling leading lady” he had worked with on film.
IMPORTANT: Philip Berry wrote the original stage plays for both films, helping to define the careers of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, who starred in both HOLIDAY (1938) and PHILADELPHIA STORY (1941).
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