Irene Dunne still remains one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. She was both a lively comedienne, an impressive singer, and performed in melodrama better than most. Pair her with Cary Grant and director George Stevens and you have an impressive bulwark to build a film out of.
I disdain the rather condescending term “Woman’s Picture,” but if Mildred Pierce was one of the darkest exemplars of the genre than Penny Serenade might be one of the most heartfelt. It finds its inspiration in the revolving melodies of records on a victrola. It’s true that music is so very powerful in evoking emotion and it is precisely these songs that lend themselves to Julie Gardiner’s myriad memories. They began when she initially met the love of her life, a budding journalist who was not too keen about getting hitched or the future prospect of having kids. But Roger’s career took him to Asia and he tied the knot with Julie because he was not about to let another man take her away from him.
The rest of the film can best be described as a marital drama concerned with the many moments that make up a marriage. The thrill of the honeymoon period. The little marital tiffs. The tough times when your fledgling self-run paper is not doing the best. The struggles of trying to have kids or wanting to adopt and realizing the process is far more arduous than you first expected. All of these moments can be found in Penny Serenade. But it is one of the sweetest that also becomes the most heartbreaking.
Julie and Roger get the child that they so desire and it’s hard and trying and oh so scary, but they make a go of it and truly revel in being parents. But even that joy is taken away from them. It’s that same pain that shakes the foundations of their marriage just like the deadly earthquake they experienced in Japan. Once more amidst the heartbreaking tremors, there are wonderful revelations and an ultimate resolution that is good.
It’s true that Penny Serenade is overlong, lacking a great deal of substantial conflict or direction but it certainly plays to its strengths. The third time around Grant and Dunne continue their impeccable chemistry that carries the film alongside the direction of George Stevens who always seems to know how to helm both drama and comedy with ease. And the secondary roles are filled out marvelously by the always venerable Beulah Bondi and a noticeably younger Edgar Buchannan playing his usual old softie with a gravelly voice.
So if you’re in a sentimental mood tune into Penny Serenade a film that is less of a classic than a film that rides on the laurels of its main players who elevate the storyline above the normal fray through sheer charisma and ingenuity. While Grant is always remembered as a comedic actor, there are several notable heart-wrenching sequences where he taps into a different side of his persona. In the end, having Cary Grant and Irene Dunne together again is worth it in itself.