Category: 1941

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-

This is without question going to be the oldest song that I’ve ever used as my Song of the Day. “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” by renowned vocal group The Ink Spots came out in 1941 which predates any other song I’ve used on here by about 20 years. However, I’m reviewing a film from the same year, Penny Serenade, and for some some reason, this song kept popping in my head as I was starting out on that review (which isn’t finished yet but will be up by the end of the evening). The major reason that I know this song is because of Fallout 3 because it was the main song of the game. Anyone who’s played Bethesda’s masterpiece has probably had this song stuck in their head for long periods of time if you spent anytime listening to that particular radio station. Here’s a song though that manages to predate rock & roll that I still find to be absolutely timeless. Enjoy.

Back when I reviewed the “classic” WW II movie The Longest Day, I talked about how a lot of the politically-tinged films of that era were are almost nothing more than jingoistic propaganda. The Longest Day itself wasn’t quite that anvilicious, but overbearing political talking points for the government were (and to an extent still are) a common part of so-called “message” films back in the day. Nowadays, there aren’t industry rules in place keeping studios from making political films that disagree with the government. As a modern day liberal pacifist, when I go back and watch obvious jingoistic propaganda films, it makes me a little bit sick to my stomach that great artists were basically selling their souls to make a quick buck. It’s really frustrating when there’s a halfway decent film beneath all of the obvious shilling. Such is the case with Fritz Lang’s political thriller, Man Hunt, a film that was released on the eve of World War II. The core tale of a man on the run for his life from the Gestapo was a passable if not exceptional tale of spy antics, but with its ludicrously over the top ending and almost cartoonish depiction of the Third Reich, Man Hunt has simply not aged well at all (especially compared to another film from the 40s that I’ve watched in the last 24 hours, Double Indemnity).

Months before Germany and England declare war on each other, the appeasement of Neville Chamberlain and Germany’s own imperialistic military ambitions mean that the uneasy peace between the nations could be shattered at the slightest incident. When British ex-military man and now leisurely big game hunter Capt. Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) decides to hunt the biggest game of all, his actions threaten to shatter the peace once and for all. On what he claims is a “sporting stalk” (which means he puts a target in his gun sights with no intention of pulling the trigger), Thorndike manages to get none other than the Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler himself, in his gun sights (and even dry pulls the trigger [which means there wasn’t a bullet in the chamber]) when he’s caught by the Fuhrer’s guards. A Nazi intelligence officer wants to use Thorndike’s stupidity as an excuse to start a war with the British (and gain international support for it) by having Thorndike sign a confession to an intentional assassination attempt of Adolph Hitler and that he was acting under the orders of the British government. When he refuses again and again (even after being tortured), his captors try to make it look like he killed himself. However, he escapes and with the help of a young boy on a steam boat (The Poseidon Adventure‘s Roddy McDowell) and a young British prostitute (Joan Bennett), he leads the Gestapo on a chase through London as he tries to clear his name and escape the claws of the German machine.

Up until the end, Man Hunt was an enjoyable if generally unremarkable film. There was nothing about any of the performances (except for perhaps George Sanders as the Nazi intelligence officer) that was especially striking. The film was shot in fairly conventional fashion and the script took where you expected it to go. There was some slight stuff in there about the British class system (very, very slight), and perhaps some commentary about how much the British were being pussies about Hitler before he invaded Poland, but other than that, there just really wasn’t a whole lot happening in this film besides the plot which followed conventional “chase” film fare. However, it had its own nostalgic, innocent value at times. I really like a lot of the heroes from older thriller films. They’ve got a lot more steel in their spines and conviction in their beliefs than contemporary heroes (which is perhaps why contemporary great characters are better than most of the classic great heroes. The new characters are more complicated), but their innocent simplicity has its charm. But, boy, did this film’s end just drag the whole movie off a total cliff. Had it ended about two or three minutes before the real ending, this movie could have been a “B-” meaning I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t great or even particularly good. However, let’s just say that its ending was so Goebbels-esque in its over-the-top pro-war propaganda and calling British men to action that it ruined a lot of the rest of the film.

I’m going to keep this review short because Game of Thrones comes on in half an hour and I want to eat a little bit before it comes on. Man Hunt was never going to be a great film, but it had some good things going for it, and I know that Fritz Lang is a better director than this. M. and Metropolis are all-time classics. It’s a shame that Man Hunt threw away all of its artistic credibility away at the end of the film. If you enjoy classic political thrillers, you may find something to enjoy about this movie, but if you get irritated when political messages are awkwardly tacked on to films that seem to have no natural fit with the rest of the picture, you’ll probably get as frustrated with Man Hunt as I did. Outside of that niche of movie fans, the rest of you can pass.

Final Score: C+