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.


March 22, 2011

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When two deeply affecting films are viewed in quick succession, they start to speak to each other. This weekend I watched Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Love Affair (1939), both for the second time. They have a radically contrasting approach to narrative, but both use visual patterning to pursue a kind of naturalized transcendence. In both, an idealized vision or emotion is brought down to earth, made approachable and concrete. Love Affair takes the melodramatic conceit of romantic love, based on separation and a purely spiritual longing, and places it in reluctant bodies, who squirm and flirt and have to work for a living. Boonmee flattens the space between life and death, man and animal, ancient and modern. Ghosts are as natural as the oxen in the woods, and its characters react accordingly, with benign acceptance. In their own way, both films convey what my late, great undergraduate Philosophy professor, M.C. Dillon, wrote in Beyond Romance:

We are our bodies. Including the traces that other bodies have visited upon ours and the traces our bodies deposit in the world as marks of its passage. It is as bodies that we are and are known. In that broad sense, all our knowledge of each other is carnal knowledge.

Boonmee takes the supernatural and makes it tactile, while Love Affair brings romaticism into the intricate choreography of actors’ hands. I previously wrote about Boonmee here, so the following incoherent ramblings will focus on Love Affair.

The plot of Love Affair uses the classic scenario of romantic love, as laid down in the songs of the twelfth-century troubadors in the South of France. They sang of unrequited attractions, impossible to act on because of the custom, as Dillon writes, of using marriage as a means of consolidating family wealth. Dillon goes on to quote the Countess of Champagne, delivering a judgment in a court of love convened in 1174:

We say and affirm…that love may not extend its rights over two married persons. For lovers grant each other all things mutually and freely without constraint of any motive of necessity, whereas the married are in duty bound reciprocally to submit to the will of the other, and to refuse each other nothing.

Love and marriage are mutually exclusive, and this in turn fueled the thwarted erotic imaginations of the eras poets. All of the great romantic stories, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, are premised on separating the lovers. Dillon: “The point is that the intense experience of love they sought could not survive without the barriers that kept their fantasies alive by preventing them from knowing one another.” (Manoel de Oliveria’s masterful duo of Doomed Love and Francisca lays bare the masochistic tendencies of this mode). The ensuing centuries have done little to alter this pattern, aside from changing the tragic ending into one of happy heterosexual couple-dom. The barrier between couples remains, cycled through endless cliches, usually divisions in class or temperament. These tales typically end when the lovers first get to know each other.

Love Affair subtly tweaks this pattern, with director Leo McCarey introducing visual motifs to bring this love for all time into a love for right now. Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne gain a carnal knowledge of each other, in Dillon’s sense, in their first moments together, revealing themselves through their relation to space and their musical gestures. Their first meeting is through a porthole window on board a cruise ship, a tiny opening that halos faces, a partial, idealized view. It is a typically romantic image, Dunne’s face framed like a cameo necklace, and separated from Boyer by a thick wooden wall. In a usual romance, this first meet-cute would presage a long interval of Boyer searching for this mystery woman. Instead, Dunne walks around the corner, in an imposingly squared off fur coat, and continues her sarcastic banter. She goes from a beatific face to a fully embodied woman, and Boyer is immediately taken, grabbing her arm and urging her to listen to his own romantic woes.

It is from this moment that McCarey orchestrates a symphony of hand gestures to indicate their growing bond. In their first meeting, Dunne playfully taps her fingers on her purse, one of her strong moves of studied indifference. Later, the conversation turns to their respective fiancees, and Dunne lifts her pearl necklace to her mouth, a nervous, childish tic, revealing a bubbling insecurity. The flirtatious game they are playing against each other soon turns in to an effortless vaudeville act – their bodies simply work well together. After their initial dinner date, a photographer snaps an embarrassing candid, and with a choreographed bit of sleight of hand, Boyer hands the film to Dunne, who drops it in the ocean while pretending to straighten her hair. In this wave of hand motions, they have gone from antagonists to physical intimates, without a romantic word seeping from their lips, their dialogue being a thick flurry of quips and put-downs.

In the following sequence, Boyer tries to charm a little boy with a game of patty cake, but instead the kid dishes about the gossip surrounding Boyer’s amorous conquests. He feigns hitting the kid before walking away – here his hands fail him, able to work only with Dunne. This visual motif reaches its peak when they visit Boyer’s grandmother in Spain, who is played with quivering intensity by Maria Ouspenskaya. Dunne asks to see her chapel, and kneels in a gauzy, be-fogged light (Rudolph Mate was the D.P.). As she stares intensely at the statue of the Virgin Mary, beseeching silently for answers to her romantic plight, Boyer sits uncomfortably, peering at her. The telling moment occurs when Dunne concludes her prayer, and Boyer does the same, but nervously adjusts his tie as he finishes the sign of the cross. He is shaken out of his self-possession for the first time, just as Dunne was by grasping her pearls. Later, Boyer asks his grandmother to play the piano, and she responds, laughing, “look at my hands”, in apology for her coming performance.

But she continues with a lovely ballad which unites them all. McCarey begins with a close-up of Ouspenskaya’s wrinkled hands stringing out the notes and cuts to a single smiling shot of her, before framing a medium shot of all three, with Boyer and Dunne at opposite sides of the piano. As the music flows from her fingers, Dunne starts humming the tune, and so begins an exchange of glances in shot-countershot. First is Boyer’s adoring gaze on Dunne, followed by Ouspenskaya’s knowing grin towards him. They are all connected by their looks and by the grandmother’s expressive hands, which say more than either Boyer or Dunne have been able to in their circling flirtations. It is an expression of love flowed through Ouspenskaya’s fingers into Boyer’s gaze, and emerging from Dunne’s voice. This impossibly moving sequence is shattered by the brusque bellowing of the crusie ship’s horn, indicating the couple’s departure. The grandmother trails off from the melody, the spell broken, and breaks down in tears. Her grandson is leaving, and the piano’s flowing channel of emotion has been stopped up. From now on Boyer will have to express this bodily emotion on his own, and it’s unclear, after the scene in the chapel, whether he’s capable of it.

The expressive hands disappear once the couple departs the ship, but not before McCarey inserts one final image in this motif, of their clasped hands pulling apart. This begins the classically romantic section of separation, but in this case it is self-imposed. Both Boyer and Dunne realize that their union would mean the end of their comfortable lifestyles – they would lose their rich husband and family, respectively. So they pledge to learn how to make a living, and wed afterward. Dunne becomes a nightclub singer, Boyer a commercial (and later artistic) painter. One ingenious shot finds Boyer painting a Schlitz billboard when his agent yells up to him that he sold his first canvas. Their separation does not “prevent them from knowing one another”, in the usual romantic mode, but provides an opportunity to know themselves better.

In this section McCarey shifts to imagery of reflections in windows and mirrors, representing each character’s self-doubt about the solidity of their dreams. They pledge to meet at the Empire State Building in six months, after building a career. The melodrama’s machinations put more roadblocks in their path, but it ends in a joyful affirmation of embodied love. This final revelation begins in a revival of their first flirtatious meetings, when every word meant its inverse and meaning had to be read on their faces. But then in an extraordinary panning shot, Boyer sees the reflection of one of his own paintings, erasing the doubts represented in the earlier mirror shots, and proving the irreducible nature of their love. In the final image, they dry each other’s eyes with Ouspenskaya’s shawl, a talisman of their unspoken emotions, expressed previously only through gesture. Now they can cry freely.

For a film singing with images, I will end on dialogue, in which Dunne starts with the mystical and ends with a man, shuddering in her embrace:

“I was looking…up. To the 102nd floor. It was the nearest thing to heaven. You see, you were there.”


For M.C. Dillon (1938 – 2005), who taught me how to live. When I told him I was going to Graduate School for Cinema Studies, he was befuddled – he implied that it was useless, and that I should pursue Philosophy – but then told me a story. He said when he was in the Navy, he had a stop-over in Monaco and attended a diplomatic party. There, he claimed, he danced the evening away with Grace Kelly.