Synopsis: Julie Gardiner (Irene Dunne) is just a lonely girl working in a music shop when she meets handsome stranger Roger Adams (Cary Grant). The two fall instantly in love, but their courtship is cut short when Roger’s job as a newspaperman sends him to Japan. Before Roger departs, they have a quickie wedding and even quicker honeymoon. When Julie joins Roger in Japan a few months later, he is delighted to discover that she is pregnant. But their joy quickly turns to devastation when a catastrophic earthquake causes Julie to miscarry and leaves her unable to have children. When the couple moves back to the United States to start their own newspaper, their inconsistent income throws a wrench in their dream of adopting a child and becoming a real family. With the good-hearted Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) pulling for them at the orphanage and lovable third wheel Applejack (Edgar Buchanan) helping them make ends meet at home, will Roger and Julie be able to convince the powers-that-be that the love they have to give is enough to make their house a suitable home for a child in need?
I have a very special place in my heart for this dreadful little movie, directed by George Stevens for Columbia in 1941. Of course, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne first teamed up in the much-loved Leo McCarey screwball comedy The Awful Truth in 1937, now considered a classic of the genre; in 1940 they made My Favorite Wife, another delightful screwball and one of my personal favorites, directed by Garson Kanin and produced and co-written by McCarey. With these two brilliant and successful comedy hits behind them, Dunne and Grant teamed up one last time for Penny Serenade. I like to think of it as one cruel, vicious joke on the movie-going public. “You laughed and hooted along with their hilarious antics in The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife; now see them in Penny Serenade, where you will CRY YOUR EYES OUT FOREVER AND EVER AS THE PAIN AND SORROW REFUSE TO CEASE.” I imagine people flocking jovially to the theater, thinking they’re going to have a rollicking good time; but as they sit down, straps and buckles shoot out from the seats, trapping them in place, where they are bombarded with two straight hours of depressing, heart-wrenching, dead-baby melodrama. The mental image makes me laugh, because I’m a terrible person.
There are a few things I like about Penny Serenade. Cary Grant was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his performance here; watching the movie, you may not at first understand the reasoning behind this, but once you get to his impassioned appeal in the judge’s chambers, you’ll see why. It’s the best scene in the whole picture, and Grant gives a devastatingly vulnerable performance as he pleads to keep his adopted child whom the court is threatening to take away due to the Adamses’ lack of steady income. Maybe I’m insensitive, but I really don’t root for this couple; it’s irresponsible to think they can raise a child on love alone, and it’s pretty damn entitled of them to think they deserve a baby any more than the countless other couples who can provide a more stable home. But Grant’s speech does tug on my heartstrings, and I do believe it is the most emotionally exposed I’ve ever seen him. (Keep in mind, I have not yet been able to track down a copy of None But the Lonely Heart, the 1944 film for which he received his second Oscar nomination.) Besides Grant, I also have a fondness for Edgar Buchanan’s performance as the Adamses’ sweet-natured pal Applejack. Buchanan steals every scene he’s in – quite a compliment, given the star power of his illustrious co-stars!
While it has its moments, overall I find Penny Serenade to be an overblown melodrama that tries every trick in the book to squeeze a tear out of you. There are a few comedic scenes intended to lighten the mood, but in a way they almost make it worse; given all the sorrow that bombards them, laughing at these characters’ small joys is more painful than soothing. There’s nothing wrong with melodrama, but this one just seems too overwrought and unrealistic, to the point of campiness. The last twenty minutes are pure torture as the film is finally drowning in a sea of its own tears and trying like hell to pull you down with it. We do get a very tacked-on happy ending in the last few seconds, which is laughably nonsensical and, in a way, almost crass. Because I find camp irresistible, I do get enjoyment from this film, but maybe not for the reasons I’m supposed to.
Penny Serenade (1941) – 3/5 stars