I’m starting to believe that George Stevens is one of the true unsung heroes of classic Hollywood. His film Giant transcended the simplistic scope of its story (and its seemingly endless run time) through the untapped beauty of the Texas plains and by highlighting the explosive sexual undercurrents running between his young cast. It’s difficult to understate just how impressive Stevens’ accomplishment was in making me thoroughly love a three and a half hour epic about cattle drivers and oil men. Well, Mr. Stevens has done it again. His classic 1941 romance Penny Serenade with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne may not be the exercise in grand film-making that Giant was, but it pushes past the possible roteness of its subject matter by displaying an honesty and sensitivity where too many other films would play up the melodrama.
Told through flashbacks, Penny Serenade is the story of the tribulations (and occasional triumphs) of the romance of Julie Gardiener (Life With Father‘s Irene Dunne) and Roger Adams (My Favorite Wife‘s Cary Grant) over the course of roughly a decade or so. When the film begins, it is apparent that Julie has decided to leave Roger for reasons not yet explained, and the rest of the film explores their courtship, marriage, and eventual troubles. Meeting at the record store where Julie worked, Roger, a newspaper man, immediately falls in love, and it isn’t long before the couple are wed. After Julie has a miscarriage because of an earthquake, Julie and Roger adopt a beautiful baby girl named Trina, but it isn’t long before tragedy threatens to tear their family apart one more time.
Despite persistent rumors concerning his sexuality to the contrary, Cary Grant remains one of Hollywood’s all-time great charmers, and it’s easy to see why. As the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome, it’s easy to see why the fiery and resolute Irene Dunne fell in love with him (not to mention that the pair’s natural chemistry led them to be regularly cast together in romances). However, Grant’s performance (and his character) was a little more substantive than your typical “male lead for the female audience to swoon over” archetype. He had to carry the film’s most emotionally heavy scene where he pleads with a judge to not take away his and Julie’s newly adoptive daughter (because he was facing some momentary unemployment) and I would be a liar if I said that scene didn’t bring a slight tear to my eye.
Irene Dunne is also solidifying her position in my standings as one of classic Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actresses. Her ability to toe the line between resourceful, intelligent, and commanding against her equally compelling sensitive and vulnerable side was a trait often lacking in actresses of the time who could often only deliver on one front. Bette Davis was domineering. I would rarely call her sensitive. Grace Kelly was elegant and beautiful. She didn’t control a scene. Katherine Hepburn was one of the few actresses who could do both, and Irene Dunne is another who seems to be only beloved in the circles of cinephiles. She was able to televise a subtle but smoldering sexuality between her and Cary Grant even when it’s somewhat obvious to modern audiences that he may not have even liked women.
The early moments of the film (before it took a more melodramatic turn although it never become over-bearing) which explored the early courtship and marriage of Roger and Julie are among the strongest moments of the film. Framing the film as Julie listening to old records which recall specific memories, Penny Serenade presents a simple and honest romance which would seem just as realistic (for the most) today as it did back in the 1940s. A lot of love stories and dramas before the 1960s don’t age very well (a point I harp on constantly) but there is something pleasantly timeless about this particular love story. When Roger buys over a dozen records just to have an opportunity to chat with Julie, it connects in a way that a lot of less developed romances never could.
That’s not to say that the film isn’t without it’s fair share of issues. The film becomes almost unendingly tragic as it progresses. One bad thing after another happens to our protagonists, and while that occasionally has the chance to lend a film a more cathartic feel, these character’s hardships often seemingly come out of nowhere and build til they become almost too severe. The film’s best scene is Roger pleading to the judge to keep their adopted daughter Trina, but when the film tries to top those moments, it seems like it’s trying too hard, and the film avoids even showing the most tragic moment of the whole film and instead you read it through a letter. I both appreciate the film’s attempt to show restraint and to not completely traumatize it’s audience, but it seems like that muted much of the potential emotional impact of that shocking and tragic twist.
Despite those shortcomings, Penny Serenade is a delightful film which should reach right to the core of all of the classic romantics out there. When so much of the romance and romantic comedy world is populated by utter garbage, it’s always wonderful to find a love story that rings true, and Penny Serenade passes that test. With arguably one of the three most famous leading men in Hollywood history and one of his most consistent co-stars, Penny Serenade may not rank as one of the greatest romances of all time, but if you love classic love stories, it will warm your heart and most likely move you to tears.
Final Score: B-