Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Penny Serenade

The Cary Grant Blogathon celebrates the life and career of the classic film star, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the website.

Penny Serenade
YouTube viewing

Watch enough movies and listen to enough music and sooner or later, you'll start to imagine what a soundtrack to your life might sound like. Many of us program our iPods with certain songs we play over and over, or fine-tune our Pandora or Spotify playlists for that perfect selection of tracks. What I'm talking about is similar, only the songs represent specific times and places in your life. Since we're all the stars of our own personal movies, it follows that they need killer soundtracks, right?

I have given this some thought, as you might imagine. One day I'll make up some excuse to name my ideal soundtrack, but not today. I will say that it includes a little bit of everything: Motown and country for my parents, disco for my sister, Top 40 for my junior high years, classic rock for high school, grunge for college - though beyond that point, the timeline of my life will get older, and so will the songs!

I've even toyed with the thought of starting a second blog for this purpose: to talk about music the way I talk about movies, with less critical discourse and more personal meditations. Nick Hornby released a volume called Songbook, which collects a bunch of essays he wrote about individual songs and his unique relationship with them. He can talk critically about music, and at times in the book, he does, but he spends more time discussing memories, feelings and thoughts associated with the songs he's chosen. If I were to start a music blog, I would want it to read like this, though I'm not half the writer or critic Hornby is. Maybe after I finish the novel? I dunno.

Penny Serenade plays with the personal soundtrack idea (though I doubt they called them soundtracks in 1941, the year this movie was released). In the beginning, the marriage of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne is about to end. Dunne is ready to leave him for good, but before she does, she goes through her record collection. Each song she plays triggers a memory of their relationship, and that's how we learn what brought us to this point. It's not a bad storytelling device, though after awhile, you start to wonder when she's gonna finish and leave already.

This movie earned Grant the first of his two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, without a win. Hard to believe, isn't it? One of American cinema's greatest, most iconic, most versatile leading men never got nominated for The Philadelphia Story, Notorious, Suspicion, or North by Northwest, much less won. I'd say it's the curse of the pretty-boy actor (see also: Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Mark Wahlberg, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp), but it's hard to say for sure. Leonardo DiCaprio did finally win the Best Actor Oscar, after all, so maybe there's hope.

From Grant's first scene, we can tell his performance in this movie, about a young couple's quest to have and raise a child, is different. We remember Grant as the suave, debonair man-about-town who's smooth with the ladies, yet not afraid to take a pratfall or two sometimes. The Grant in Serenade is, in general, quieter, more down-to-earth, and more emotionally vulnerable.

A few years ago, I tried to speculate why today's leading men avoid romantic movies like the plague. I cited Grant as an example from the past of an actor as convincing making love to a woman as when he's doing other things in the movies. In Serenade, he doesn't court Dunne as a sophisticated ladies man; he does it in an almost introverted way. He buys a bunch of records in the record shop she works in, even though he doesn't have a player, just so she can wait on him and they can talk longer.

Because this is Grant and Dunne, you expect some silly antics or witty banter, but they play it straight. Throughout the movie, Grant expresses his love for Dunne, in words and deeds, with a naked sincerity and passion rarely seen in today's leading men when their characters have wives or girlfriends...

...and that love is extended to their adopted child. Indeed, director George Stevens goes to great lengths to portray the reality of parenting: the hard work, the constant worry, the sacrifice, and how it can cause problems in a marriage. There's one extended diaper-changing scene, shot in real time with very limited cuts. Dunne is frustrated and nervous over the procedure, but Edgar Buchanan is calmly confident. I found it interesting that Dunne's character was so gung-ho about having a child, yet so clueless about how to care for it also. It's the sort of thing that makes you think parenting might not be for everyone...

Serenade isn't perfect. Spoilers for a 75-year-old movie to follow: in the scene that undoubtedly clinched the Oscar nod for Grant, he pleads with a judge to let him keep his adopted daughter. The judge insists it's a matter of law, but in the very next scene, there's Grant with the baby, happy and smiling. So much for the law! Also, it was shot from too far a distance. We really need to see Grant's face in close-up and we don't.

It doesn't matter, though, because later on, the child dies - off-screen! We find out in a letter Dunne writes to adoption agent Beulah Bondi, only Dunne's handwriting is a little on the fancy side. I had to stop the movie several times to read her letter! The death drives Grant and Dunne apart, but it's okay; Bondi finds a new baby for them at the last minute before they can break up. Hooray! Whatever.

Still, it's a good movie overall and a rare chance to see Grant not be Grant in a movie. Sort of.

Other Cary Grant movies:


  1. What an intriguing idea about the soundtrack of one's life! I am a big fan of both Grant and Dunne, but have never seen this film. It sounds like quite the emotional trip...and it's an interesting idea about using the different records...though it's funny, as you said out, how little she knows about caring for a child. :)

    Really enjoyed your review of this film!

  2. Thanks. If you think about it, though, the idea's not so unusual. Music is a huge part of all our lives, in one way or another; it just seems to follow that songs are used to mark significant moments: weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, promotions, etc. That's exactly how I see this movie.

  3. I would definitely want to read that other blog of yours whenever it gets off the ground.

    Penny Serenade was my dad's favourite Cary Grant movie, and that scene in the judge's office would almost bring him to tears.

    I've never had a problem with the ending that a lot of people have. The new baby isn't replacing Trina and she will not be forgotten. The new baby will help open up the pent up emotions Roger and Julie have been keeping to themselves. The baby will help in the healing, but the baby will still be more than that.

  4. I don't think replacing their first child is the issue. Grant & Dunne thought they could be parents with just good intentions. Parenting isn't a 24/7 love-fest, though, even with a perfectly healthy child. They clearly didn't take all the hard work into account, because as you can attest better than most, parenting calls for sacrifice.

    Grant came across as kinda frivolous with his career, chasing unrealistic dreams when he knew Dunne wanted to start a family. That's why the judge's decision pissed me off, especially since we didn't get to hear his rationalization for letting Grant keep the baby, double especially since he said it was a matter of law. The implication is that he was swayed by Grant's sob story, which would not fly in real life.

    Their happiness was directly tied to their status as parents. Without that, they had nothing. That was their real problem. Having a second child won't change that underlying dysfunction. It might even exacerbate it.

  5. About the soundtrack of your life: yes, do it! I mean, the musics we love say so much about who we are / were!
    It's a shame I haven't watched Penny Serenade yet, considering it's on YouTube. The event actually made me want to make a Cary Grant movie marathon.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

  6. I'll see if I can think up some excuse to share my personal soundtrack sometime in 2017.

  7. Love the idea of writing down song memories!!! I may have to do that...

    The records was a unique storytelling device but I agree after a while your wondering how much longer she's going to take.

    It seems that actors who are consistently good never get an oscar but if you've only gotten so-so roles and then get a real good one you win! But I'd rather be remembered for being amazing in most of my movies then only for an oscar winning role.

    Grants performance is wonderful in this film. Thanks for writing about it so well for this Blogathon :)

  8. Lack of an Oscar certainly didn't hurt Grant's popularity, which endures to this day.


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