From a treacly story by Martha Cheavens, which Morrie Ryskind turned into a script, Penny Serenade chronicles a couple as they lose their baby, adopt, eventually lose their adopted child, and seem to lose the thread of their marriage—all directed by George Stevens, in his future Shane-ful fashion, to achieve the pace of a sloth. This long, excrutiating tearjerker is, however, redeemed by two magnificent performances and (by Eva Lee Kuney as six-year-old Trina) another sweet and memorable one.
Alas, “magnificent” does not describe the contribution of the film’s beautiful star, Irene Dunne, whose hard jaw-line becomes almost ludicrously exaggerated by Stevens’s (presumably conscious) framing and camera-angling. Dunne plays Julie Adams, who is packed and ready to exit husband Roger, now that they have lost their adopted child to illness. (Caught up in Japan’s 1923 earthquake, Julie can no longer have biological children.) Pensively, Julie pauses to listen to a series of recorded songs, each of which triggers a soapy flashback of her and Roger’s marriage. At the last, another child becomes available for adoption, and Julie decides to give her marriage another go. Or should one say “goo”?
Dunne is brittle and seems to have lost some of her rapport with Cary Grant, with whom she acted in two comedies, The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937) and My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin, 1940), and who plays Roger Adams. (Penny Serenade also begins as a comedy before sliding into the suds.) Given the script and direction, Dunne is hardly the film’s principal weakness, but she is close to being god-awful.
Grant, Oscar-nominated, though, is trenchant—heartbreaking—as Roger, giving one of his most emotionally powerful performances, indeed, one of the most emotionally powerful performances ever to emerge from a Hollywood studio (in this case, Columbia). Stevens had directed Grant in Gunga Din (1939) and would direct him in The Talk of the Town (1942), drawing from him, in all three films, such disparate characterizations that one can hardly believe it is the same actor. Grant amazes.
Equally superb in Penny Serenade, moreover, is Beulah Bondi, who quietly, tactfully and sensitively plays Miss Oliver, who operates the child adoption agency that the Adamses engage.
Can one recommend a film on the basis of two such worthwhile performances when the film itself is worthless? Ah, isn’t this so often the quandary that Hollywood “entertainments” put us into?