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Cary Grant and Irene Dunne took a break from screwball comedy to play an everyday couple coping with life's problems in the heart-wrenching tale Penny Serenade (1941).
The tearjerker begins as Dunne's character Julie is ready to leave her husband Roger Adams, played by Cary Grant. She begins to listen to old records, and the couple's life together is told in flashbacks related to the songs, including "Penny Serenade," "You Were Meant For Me," and "Poor Butterfly."
She reminisces about the two meeting, marrying and traveling to Japan, where reporter Roger is on assignment. They try to start a family but Julie miscarries. A return to the United States and adoption follow. But tragedy strikes again when the girl they adopted dies. Julie, unable to cope with Roger's grief or her own, is ready to end the marriage. But then hope returns in the form of another possible adoption and brings the two back together.
Grant's emotional performance was hailed by the critics, and he was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award®, losing to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. Dunne said later that Grant astounded everyone with the depth of his performance. "He was very apprehensive about nearly everything. So apprehensive, in fact, that he would get almost physically sick. If the script, the director, an actor, or a particular scene displeased him, he would be greatly upset. I remember one scene in Penny Serenade where he had to plead with a judge to keep an adopted baby. He was so disturbed. I had to talk to him and talk to him." (On-Screen, Off-Screen Movie Guide by Ted Sennett).
Helping the heart-broken couple are Beulah Bondi, as head of an adoption society, and family friend Applejack, played with comic sweetness by Edgar Buchanan. Buchanan, later known to TV audiences as Uncle Joe on Petticoat Junction, provides some of the lighter moments in Penny Serenade, such as when he attempts to give the baby a bath.
The restrained and tasteful direction by George Stevens (Shane, 1953, The More the Merrier, 1943, A Place in the Sun, 1951) prevented the film from becoming too excessively maudlin and, most critics and moviegoers regarded it as a warm and moving portrait of a marriage.
Penny Serenade was one of three films in which Stevens directed Grant, with Gunga Din in 1939 and the 1942 comedy The Talk of the Town rounding out the trio. Dunne also had great success with the director. Along with Penny Serenade, Stevens steered Dunne in I Remember Mama (1948), a role that earned her a fifth Best Actress Oscar nomination.
Dunne and Grant were no strangers by the time they made Penny Serenade. In the years before, they had teamed up for the rollicking romantic comedies The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940), both box office hits. But Dunne always said that the romantic drama Penny Serenade was her personal favorite.
Producer/Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind (based on the story by Martha Cheavens)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Otto Meyer
Art Direction: Lionel Banks
Music: W. Franke Harling
Cast: Irene Dunne (Julie Gardiner Adams), Cary Grant (Roger Adams), Beulah Bondi (Miss Oliver), Edgar Buchanan (Applejack), Ann Doran (Dotty), Wallis Clark (Judge).
BW-119m. Closed captioning.
by Amy Cox