Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Favorite Star Combinations part 3: Penny Serenade

I just returned from Norman, after looking at an apartment and signing an application on it. I have finally found a place to live! Now let's hope they take me. School starts Monday!!

Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final pairing of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, screwball royalty by my standards. Unfortunately, this film fails to uphold anything that the actors had built up in their previous films. It features very poor direction, a ridiculous plot, and little to no music in a film about the significance of a book of albums on the lives of a married couple.
This movie is about Roger and Julie Adams. Julie has decided to leave Roger. As she is packing her things, she happens upon their albums, cataloged like a photo album with little trinkets of the history of their married life. She begins playing them, and the rest of the story is told in flashback vignettes, segued by her changing records. They meet, he proposes, they marry, he moves to Japan, she joins him, she gets pregnant, she loses the baby because of an earthquake...pretty standard stuff for a romance film from 1941. They proceed to set up a small newspaper in a town in California, and adopt a baby girl. I usually don't give away the endings of films, but this one is so ridiculous that I have to tell you: the little girl dies at age 6. It hits them hard, and their grief and innability to communicate drive them apart. What brings them together is a call from the adoption agent, saying "We just got a child, and he's great. He's what you wanted when you first came to us". You see, when they adopted Trina, they actually wanted a curly blonde toddler boy, but ended up with a brunette 5 week old girl. The ending, the fact that they are staying together and replacing their dead child is supposed to be hopeful, but I could only find it laughable. Sure! We'll hide our grief by replacing her with what we really wanted all along!

Aside from the odd plot twists, other things that bother me about this film include the strange, silent film-type directions by George Stevens. He is a master of the Golden Age of Hollywood, yet I feel like this picture regresses back to the era of oddly placed close-ups, which are frequent in this film. There are some interesting shots, especially the recurring theme of the house being cut so that the camera moves upstairs with the actors, but there are also awkward shots like when one actor completely blocks out the other, who is speaking. One instance in particular is the train sequence. I can't find a clip of that part alone, so I suppose you will have to watch it if you want.

Now that I think about it, one perspective on the style of direction would be to take us back to the "good ole'years", just as the film does, but I think that would be a concept lost on early forties audiences. Still, that doesn't mean it's not the true intention. Even if this was the desired effect, I think it was overdone and interfered with the story.

Another problem I had with this film was the lack of score. Yes, a great composer knows when to take advantage of silence, but there was too much in this movie, especially since its underlying theme is the power of music and memory. The score could have been comprised of really smart variations on the song that triggered the memory, and that likely would have saved the film for me (because a great score could save anything for me [that's what she said]).

If you're looking at Penny Serenade for a great Irene Dunne and Cary Grant picture, this will likely disappoint. I read about many who love the film, but after seeing "The Awful Truth" and "My Favorite Wife", I wanted more of the same, or at least something similar. It has a couple of slightly funny scenes, but nothing like the previous two. I guess it's indicative of the aging of both actors and their personas. "The Awful Truth" has them acting like teenagers: making one another jealous by dating others and being suspicious. "My Favorite Wife" is a little more mature, dealing more with sex and the idea of settling down, and "Penny Serenade" is much more serious and grown-up. The audience that enjoyed "The Awful Truth" in 1937 is about to go to war, and they have a lot of growing up to do (I see a paper about Irene Dunne and Cary Grant's personas in my future...).

If you would like to watch "Penny Serenade" it is available on DVD. I believe it is in the public domain, as I purchased it in the dollar DVD section as a double feature with "Charade". It is also available to watch on everyone's favorite video website. Please let me know what you think, especially if you disagree.


Juliette. said...

Interesting take on this one. I definitely agree with what you said about Stevens. He did the same close-up bits in earlier stuff (Alice Adams comes to mind), but it seemed to be better suited to those and not this one.

I never really knew what to make of this movie or None But the Lonely Heart, but don't dislike them by any means. Both watchable and interesting.

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