Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
You gotta love a good bummer, and there's no bummer quite as good the 1941 tearjerker Penny Serenade. George Stevens quietly cranks the melodrama, taking his characters on a roller coaster that crests over great peaks of joy before descending into unexpected valleys of tragedy. And while it would have been easy to be manipulative or oversell the material, what makes Penny Serenade so effective is how light the director's touch is. He chooses his moments carefully, often letting the worst things happen out of frame, allowing the pain to settle in naturally rather than shoving it in our face.
Penny Serenade stars Cary Grant as Roger Adams, a reporter with big dreams but who is prone to shortcuts rather than the long haul. The only goal he pursues full throttle is his love for Julie Adams (Irene Dunne). He takes her halfway around the world and back again, through some success and some real heartache. An accident leaves the couple unable to have their own child, and then adoption presents new problems, particularly as Roger's business goes bust. Yet the couple sticks it out, building a life together for as long as they can.
Stevens begins his movie close to the end of both their relationship and the story. Something has finally driven a wedge between husband and wife. Julie is on her way out the door when she pauses to revisit their joint record collection. Each song she plays brings back memories, building the story from the ground up, from first meeting though marriage and struggles and building emotional suspense as we wait to find out what will ultimately tear these two apart. It's perhaps the first time a "soundtrack of our lives" device was used in cinema. Stevens moves us in and out of flashback, bringing us back to the present every time Julie changes the record.
In truth, there is nothing all that great about the script for Penny Serenade. Outside of a heartfelt monologue by Roger midway through the movie, there aren't really any memorable writing moments. (The screenplay is by My Man Godfrey's Morrie Ryskind, from a story by Martha Cheavens.) Even that scene is all about execution and Cary Grant's choked delivery. In terms of performance, both Grant and Dunne are perfectly in sync with their director. The actors play it small, letting the honesty of each dramatic incident do the work for them. Grant trades on his leading man image. His familiar charm and confidence is chiseled away, exposing Roger's bravado for what it is. When he finally admits to his failures, it's heartbreaking. This could easily be the icon's best performance.
This leaves Irene Dunne to give Penny Serenade its strength and backbone. She has an assured onscreen presence, bringing a gravitas to the movie that was only hinted at in her previous collaborations with Grant (The Awful Truth and My Favorite Wife). As a duo, they are so good together, it's a shame their joint efforts stopped here. Then again, they managed a pretty perfect trio of films, so maybe we should thank these lucky stars for not outstaying their welcome.
It's also impressive that they ended things on such a down beat. The adage is "leave 'em laughing." Penny Serenade does anything but. Yet, the Dunne/Grant partnership is stronger for it. Penny Serenade shows us the full extent of what they could do, and in doing so embodies a different adage: "there isn't a dry eye in the house."
The movie is shown at its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio.