August 20, 2013
Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens. Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.
After parting with RKO, George Stevens signed with Columbia on May 14, 1940 to produce and direct two features. Harry Cohn wooed him with a promise never to speak to him on the set, which was reportedly honored. Stevens presented Cohn with the Martha Cheavens’ short story “Penny Serenade”, which was to be published in McCalls magazine. Columbia purchased the rights for $25,000 and hired Cheavens as a script consultant. Morrie Ryskind expanded her story into a feature-length screenplay, which tracks the travails of Julie (Dunne) and Roger (Grant) Adams, a married couple at the breaking point. Julie is about to leave him when she spies a scrapbook/record album that collected the history of their love alongside the hits of the day. In a series of flashbacks set to those pop hits, Stevens traces the bloom and decay of their bond, from the meet-cute at a record store to their grieving lows of poverty and irreperable personal loss.
In The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey would play a piano on set to loosen up his actors and stir improvisational ideas. When they cooked up something funny, they would shoot and move on. Stevens was a far more deliberate worker, who Dunne described as “just the opposite” of McCarey, “very slow. But he came well prepared…we would have rehearsals on the set, and…discuss details of how a scene would be played.” He was notorious for shooting a lot of coverage and running up film costs, waiting for the moment in his head to appear in front of the camera. Stevens uses crowded compositions in Penny Serenade, life a series of obstacles Julie and Roger must traverse. Before Roger can make his marriage proposal on New Year’s Eve, he has to navigate packed rooms in which he is continually interrupted. It is only when they squeeze onto the fire escape that Julie can say yes. At their most peaceful moment, when George gets a reporting job in Japan, an earthquake levels their home as Julie is pinned by debris on the staircase.
He also deploys intricately choreographed long takes in the parenting scenes. The camera is fixed, but Grant and Dunne are in constant motion. In one slow-burn gag, Dunne is freaking out about bathing her newly adopted baby, approaching as if it were a caged lion. Grant watches with queasy anticipation next to her, and both of them fail so badly in this simple task that their assistant Applejack (the wonderful Edgar Buchanan) has to take over. The film is unique in how it undercuts traditional notions of motherhood. Dunne does not instantly become nurturing, but has to learn how to care for the child. She is as terrified of hurting the baby as Grant, who handles the kid with goggle eyed terror.
This is one of Grant’s greatest performances, for which he was nominated for his first Best Actor Oscar (he lost to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York). Roger is a playboy crushed by the Depression, unable to provide for his wife and child. Grant has to divert his natural charisma into something darker as the film progresses, culminating in a pained monologue to a judge about to reject their adoption application. It is a plea of pure abjection, Grant bows his head and flexes his body inward, making himself looks small so his emotions seem enormous and true by comparison. It works beautifully, and as Orson Welles said of Make Way For Tomorrow, it could make a stone cry.
The Columbia publicity director at the time, Lou Smith, wrote in a private memo that “I cried three times during the showing and everyone around me was mopping up too…Instead of having actors jump off cliffs, this one will have the audience jumping off.” Penny Serenade is a traditional tearjerker, with a plot that turns on unthinkable tragedy and improbable coincidence. But Stevens, Grant and Dunne treat the material with utmost respect, etching a film of bone-deep melancholy about the terror of child-rearing and the greater horror of losing that child. By the end Stevens shoots the Adams home as a tomb, shadows creeping in on Julie and Roger. Only a miracle can save their marriage, and Penny Serenade is one of those movies that makes you want to believe.