Penny Serenade (1941): An Appreciation

A sweet (sometimes saccharine) and wonderfully acted movie, directed by George Stevens, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

It was the first time Cary Grant was nominated for an Oscar, mainly because of the one scene where he goes before the judge to plead his case, and he starts to cry. Why nominate Cary Grant for something like His Girl Friday when he was just playing himself? (Like “playing yourself” is easy. I love it when people who aren’t actors say “Bah, he was just playing himself” as though that’s easy, first of all. Or as though it’s some kind of a criticism. Huh? How on earth is “he just played himself” a criticism? John Wayne “just played himself”. You gonna tell me that guy wasn’t a superior actor?)

Penny Serenade is, in its own way, ahead of its time. It presents serious issues: miscarriage, infertility, adoption, financial difficulties and the effect it has on marriage, what it’s like to adopt a baby – the angst, the nerves – the scariness of parenting, in general, feeling totally unprepared to take care of this little creature. It treats these matters seriously, sensitively, openly. It’s not coy at all. It’s a real grown-up movie.


She works in a music store. He walks by one day. Music is playing out of a speaker onto the street and the record starts to skip. It calls his attention. He turns and stares in at her, like: “Uhm – you gonna fix that?” The second he sees her, though, a spark comes into his eye. He likes the look of this dame.

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They start to date. I love this shot – they’re dancing – music is playing – and the two of them are both whistling along with the tune, and making each other laugh. Totally real moment. I know that Cary Grant loved Irene Dunne best, in terms of leading ladies … they were dear dear friends, and you so can see that here. He thought she was so funny.

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They take a day-trip to the beach. It’s night … and it’s time to catch the last train back to town. They’re in love (but it seems like real people in love, not sentimentalized.) He seems a bit antsy about sharing his feelings, he gets shy and weird, trying to deflect. She doesn’t push, or get mushy, although you can tell her feelings are quite serious. They start kissing by the dressing-rooms at the beach and it’s pretty obvious that he’s about to get rather hot and heavy. She gently stops him. The dialogue is all innuendo but it’s totally clear. “We need to get back …” He leans in again. “Not yet …” Etc. A totally real feeling scene. Not coy, like I mentioned before. He wants to sleep with her. She gently says no. That’s basically what’s going on here.

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She throws a raucous New Year’s Eve party. He shows up minutes before midnight and drags her out onto the fire escape. He is apologetic about being late but he has some news. Big news. I love BOTH of their acting in this scene. It’s so deep. They’re not saying what they’re really feeling – but it’s all in their faces.

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Another shot from that scene. I love how we’re looking at them thru the fire escape. He has been offered a job as news editor at his paper’s operation in Japan. He is going to take it – it’s a 2 year contract – and he is leaving that very night at 3 in the morning. 3 am train to San Francisco and then a boat to Japan. He’s excited … she’s excited for him, too – but also … upset that he’s leaving. But she tries to hide it. Look at her face here. God, she just kills me. I love her acting so much.

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Same scene. He finally gets to the point, the real point. He blurts out, “Let’s get married. Right now. Before I catch my train. I have a cab waiting downstairs to take us to the justice of the peace …” She is all flustered – now? what? Why the rush? He jokes, “You think I’m gonna let a funny little redhead like you walk around? What if some other fella came along??”

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She says yes, yes, she will marry him. In that moment, it becomes the New Year – bells ringing, etc. A raucous family on the fire escape opposite come out – it’s snowing – they’re all in their pajamas, and hooting and hollering and banging pots and pans and celebrating. They all shout “Happy New Year” at each other. I adore this shot. Isn’t it beautiful?

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The two of them rush back through her apartment – which is even more raucous now – with revelry.

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She goes with him to the train station after the marriage ceremony at city hall in the middle of the night. He will send for her in about 3 months time when he’s all set up. She comes onto the train with him just to say goodbye. Neither of them want to say goodbye. And of course he has his own room with a bed. People traveled in style those days. They cling to each other.

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She is supposed to get off the train before it leaves … but they are sitting on the bed – embracing – and you can see out the window that the train is now pulling out of the station. She gasps, “Roger – the train is moving …” He reaches out to close the door (the camera is out in the hallway, so he is essentially closing the door on us) and he says what is the raciest line in the movie – unbelievable the censors didn’t pick up on it: “We’ll get you off.” The next shot we see is the train pulling into another station – the sign says: “New York 115 Miles” so that orients us in an efficient way, how long they’ve been traveling. Long enough for her to get pregnant … we discover later. The two of them step out onto the deserted snowy platform, she’s going to catch the next train back to New York – and now they really have to say goodbye. It’s all silent. No dialogue.

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He sends for her in three months time and she travels to Japan. He is excited as a little kid to show her their new digs, etc. This is the moment where she breaks to him the news that she is pregnant. She’s nervous. She thinks he doesn’t like kids. He seems so gruff, and uninterested, and kind of selfish. His acting in this scene – and it’s all reaction shots … is as real as it gets.

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And then: tragedy. In what is a terrifying scene (and very well done, actually, no special effects) – an earthquake hits the area where they live. She is trapped on the staircase of their house – as it wildly destroys itself around her – and she ends up buried in beams and boards and debris. The next thing we see is a steamer ship – then a shot of a port – then another shot of the side of a building with a sign: SAN FRANCISCO MEMORIAL HOSPITAL. Now THAT is efficient film-making. She lies in a hospital bed and the doctor has just told her that she lost the baby, and will not be able to have another. He finally lets Cary Grant in to see her. Cary Grant’s character – a mover, a shaker, kind of irresponsible, impulsive – has no coping skills for this. He loves her. He can’t believe that this tragedy has befallen her. He doesn’t know how to make it better. All he knows is: he MUST make it better. But you can feel his helplessness in this scene.

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Look at him.

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The couple decide to start anew. Roger buys a small struggling newspaper office in a tiny town north of San Francisco. He calls on his old friend Applejack (a wonderful character) to come out from New York and be the press manager. He’s not sure when or if he will arrive … and one day Applejack shows up. You can see how happy Roger is to see him.

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There’s a sadness between the couple now. Unspoken. They don’t quite know how to deal with it, or each other. Gradually – with a couple of fits and starts – they start to talk about adopting a child. It’s a tough decision. To them, (or mainly: to him) it’s like admitting failure. Admitting that he can’t have one of his own. It’s all this messy STUFF that neither of them can even say. But eventually – they decide to make an appointment with the adoption agency. The two of them, on the drive over, are stressed OUT.

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They have an interview with Miss Oliver (played by Beulah Bondi, a wonderful character actress, great character – you think she’s an uptight spinster, but then you just fall in love with her) … and she tells them the arduousness of the process – tells them they have to prove their fitness – and that one day she will just drop by their house, unannounced, to take a look. “We want to see your house as it really is, not when it’s fixed up for company.” She arrives one day … and Irene Dunne takes her out into their tiny backyard where Roger has built a slide – this is what they see when they come out into the backyard. hahahaha

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Miss Oliver has come to tell them that a brand-new baby girl is now up for adoption. Roger and Julie had said they wanted a boy. But obviously it is only ROGER who really wanted that – because Julie is all ready to take the baby girl. Look at them here.

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They’re scared. They’re not “ready”. Now? We are going to have a baby now? It had been a theoretical hope for them … it’s now becoming real. They’re kind of panicking.

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They go to the orphanage. The baby is brought out. Roger tries to seem uninterested. After all, it is a baby GIRL. NOT WHAT THEY WANTED. And then he reaches out … and the baby grips onto his finger. There’s no swelling music here, no close-up screaming at us: HE LOVES HER NOW … it’s all very subtle. But that moment when the baby grips onto his finger … fuggedaboutit. He’s toast.

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They take the baby home. The whole long section of their first night with this baby is genius. They do not know WHAT they are doing. They are nervous, terrified – they bumble, fumble – check Miss Oliver’s notes a billion times – they bicker – like YOU should know what to do … oh yeah, well how come YOU don’t know what to do? The baby wakes up and starts screaming. The two of them absolutely panic.

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They pass the baby back and forth. DO something. No, YOU do something!

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Terror. Sheer terror.

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Next day. The high-comedy scene (mostly in one shot) of Julie trying to give the baby her first bath. She doesn’t know what she is doing. She feels like she SHOULD know what she’s doing. She tries to be cool, calm. But you can feel her panic (and self-loathing) grow. Applejack eventually takes over. He has some experience with babies. He swoops in and shows ‘em how it’s done. This is a great scene.

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Applejack shows Julie how to pin the cloth diaper. Cloth diapers. God bless the mothers of generations past. Cloth freakin’ diapers.

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A year passes. They had their baby on a year trial … and in that year, he lost the newspaper. His income is now zero. The court is going to take their baby away … and Roger – kind of arrogant, Mr. I’m gonna be my own boss – has to go and plead his case to a very unsympathetic judge. This is the scene that got him the Oscar nomination. It brings me to tears every time I see it. It’s all done in long-shots, too. No close-ups of his emotional moment. Very rare.

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“If you take her away now … she wouldn’t know what had happened to her …”

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He also has a great line (again, very insightful – and ahead of its time) – something like: “We have to put up with inspections – people checking up on us to make sure we’re taking care of her properly – her vaccinations, her shots, her toothbrush … How many ‘real’ parents have to put up with something like that?”

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Home again. She’s now theirs. For good.

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Years pass. Trina (the baby) is now 6 years old. Daddy’s little girl.

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Trina is an “angel” in the Christmas play. Roger and Julie sit out in the audience, watching her – and their hearts are bursting with love. They can barely DEAL with it. Great reaction shots from the two of them.

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Tragedy strikes again. I love this shot. It says it all.

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And the look on his face here says it all too.

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She is going to leave him. The tragedy has ruptured their bond. It’s too much. They can’t take it. He says to her, “I’m licked.” She has a great line, “You’re not licked, Roger. The problem is with us, not you. When things got really tough, we couldn’t face it together.” He is so defeated. He can barely lift a finger to stop her from leaving.

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And then … from out of the blue … a fateful call from Miss Oliver:

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The movie is obviously sentimental. It’s meant to be emotional, it’s a “message” picture, but the strength of the script and the goodness of the acting keeps it on track (mostly). A lovely little movie that I highly recommend if you haven’t seen it.

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15 Responses to Penny Serenade (1941): An Appreciation

  1. Betsy says:

    I feel like I just watched an entire movie at work – I hope the principal doesn’t find out!

  2. amelie / rae says:

    i *need* to see this movie. never have. is this as bad as my not having seen breakfast club until about a week ago?

  3. miker says:

    I’ve only seen it as a chopped-up matinee on broadcast TV – definitely need to watch the DVD.

    It had to take so much work to do this, red. You never cease to amaze and delight…

  4. Kate says:

    I LOVE THIS MOVIE and I LOVE YOUR POST!!!!! It’s entirely because of you that I saw this movie. They are so GREAT together. She brings something so deep out of him, or maybe it’s the other way around, I don’t know. But that train scene is one of the sexiest on film. I love it so much. . .

  5. Sal says:

    Miss Oliver was played by the wonderful Beulah Bondi – everyone knows her as Mrs. Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Remember how fabulous she was in the alternate no-George life scene?

    She was a great character actress – she played James Stewart’s mom in three movies.

    The part where Irene is talking about how she snapped at the little girl about something right before she died- How? I don’t remember. I can’t watch that part. It’s the nightmare of all parents – that you want to appreciate and love your kids all the time, but life won’t let you. Because they DO misbehave and make you nuts. But if anything ever happened to them, that’s the guilt you’d feel.

    This was great, Sheila.

  6. red says:

    Sal – yes, yes, that moment where they both share their regrets. Like it’s the LITTLE things … he wouldn’t give her a quarter, and told her to “run along now, I’m busy …”

    sniff, sniff. They just can’t deal with it.

    And I so agree about Miss Beulah – I was so tired last night I didn’t fill in anybody’s name (or Applejack’s name) – but she is just PERFECT, isn’t she??

  7. red says:

    Kate – I know I told you this before, but Irene Dunne reminds me a bit of you. There’s something about her – staunch, honest, feminine, funny … that is very “Kate” to me. And her acting style too – completely real, grounded, three-dimensional …

    I was so psyched when you finally saw this movie!!

    And yes – that train scene … The urgency in his voice when he says, “We’ll get you off ..”

    Ahem.

  8. bill says:

    his speech…god, I can only remember it in paraphrase “I used to be a big man. I’m not a big man anymore…” I’m screwing up the words, but I still remember the emotion in it…the ‘big man’ humbling himself for something more important then himself…

    it’s really great.

    p.s. I owe you a call!

  9. Scotter says:

    I’ve only been able to get through that movie once. Just too painful (in a good way) to experience again.

  10. Snow

    More snowy screenshots at Six Martinis! I have included two of my own below. They’re both from the same movie, Penny Serenade….

  11. Just stumbled across this on your great site and had to add my own vote of enthusiastic agreement. I loved your write-up of this fantastic movie. It is a favorite of mine.

  12. red says:

    Patrick – glad you liked! Makes me feel good to know that lots of people out there love this very special film.

  13. I absolutely ADORE Irene Dunne. I’m doing my final college Powerpoint assignment on her. Mind if a borrow a few screenshots? Thanks for the comic book version of the great movie!

    Richeldis

  14. KARISA says:

    Personally, i enjoyed MY FAVORITE WIFE. it was humorous and i love the storyline..
    And again, Cary Grant is remarkable and Irene Dunne is — wow

  15. Teresa says:

    I’m the adoptive mom of one child, now 24, and the first time I saw this film he was six–and I sobbed on and off for days and days!! I truly love this great film, and I can’t begin to tell you how realistically it portrays what it is like to be an adoptive parent. It is an extremely difficult and utterly rewarding experience, and I am delighted that my husband and I chose this path.

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