Holiday Classics: “Penny Serenade” (1941)

When I first became interested in classic film, I’d stalk the forums on tcm.com in an attempt to seek out movies to watch. Anytime the subject of tearjerkers came up, it seemed like the first and most discussed movie was a film that would likely have otherwise flown under my radar: the 1941 drama “Penny Serenade,” directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.

Based on a short story by Martha Cheavens, “Penny Serenade” begins with the ending of a relationship. As she prepares to leave her husband Roger (Grant), Julie Adams (Dunne) sits in the apartment they shared for so many years, playing records that were important to them at particular moments in their relationship, pulled from a book of albums titled “The Story of a Happy Marriage.” Every time a new record is played on the Victrola, it marks a transition to the next chapter in their lives as Julie reminiscences. Stevens apparently meticulously researched what songs to include to make sure they were accurate to the time period, and they run the gamut from the happy birthday song to “Penny Serenade” (from which the title of the film is derived) to, most memorably, the romantic ballad “You Were Meant for Me,” which kickstarts the pair’s romance (a lot of you will likely remember this song for its inclusion in a later, more famous, movie, the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain”). 

“Penny Serenade” may not seem like a holiday movie at first, and in a strict sense, it isn’t, but important scenes throughout the film take place over the holiday season. Roger and Julie first meet at the music shop she works in (he buys a lot of records just to spend time with her), and their whirlwind romance culminates at a New Year’s Eve party, where Roger, a journalist, announces that his paper is sending him on assignment to Japan, and he wants Julie to marry him and join him there. Their newlywed glow quickly wears off, however, as they face financial troubles, and then an accident causes Julie to miscarry and become barren. The couple’s attempt to adopt a child is what the bulk of the film centers around, and important events in the life of their daughter happen around Christmas: first during a needlessly anxiety-inducing Christmas pageant, and then during the following Christmas, which is marred by tragedy.

Roger (Cary Grant) and Julie (Irene Dunne) with adopted daughter Trina in “Penny Serenade”

“Penny Serenade” confronts the trial and tribulations of marriage and adoption with a frankness that few Hollywood films did during this time period. A lot of Julie and Roger’s relationship feels contentious, especially since it seems like the bulk of their happiness revolves around whether or not they can have a child, but from the start, Grant and Dunne sell their romance and make you believe that they, as the song says, are meant for each other. This was the third screen pairing of Grant and Dunne, who played married couples in their previous films as well (“The Awful Truth” and “My Favorite Wife”), but those movies were comedies. “Penny Serenade” is a drama, frequently a heavy one, that stretches the ability of both its stars. Dunne was no stranger to drama, but Grant is perhaps more well known today for his comedic performances. He shows a rare vulnerable side in “Penny Serenade,” most notably in a scene about halfway through the movie when he has to go to court to plead for custody of the little girl he and Julie have been caring for and grown to love. Despite the fact that the small town paper he bought folded and the family has no income, Grant tearfully begs the judge that the girl, Trina, is like his own child, and that she will never want for anything as long as he is there. Especially considering how just a short time ago Roger was ambivalent toward having children, it’s very moving to hear him get choked up talking about Trina. Reportedly Grant was not comfortable revealing so much emotion, but it’s the actor’s finest dramatic performance. And Stevens doesn’t shoot the scene in a way that feels manipulative, instead keeping the camera a distance from Grant and letting his acting do all the work. Grant was nominated for his first of two Best Actor Oscars for his performance (he lost to Gary Cooper for “Sergeant York”), and would later refer to this as his best role. Dunne similarly always had nice things to say about “Penny Serenade,” citing it as her favorite of her movies because it reminded her of her own adopted daughter.

“Penny Serenade” fell into the public domain in the 1970s, resulting in a lot of poor copies of it floating around, some of which cut out the pivotal courtroom scene with Grant (my own black market DVD of this movie is missing this sequence). But it is currently streaming, and available to buy on an official DVD and Blu-ray, fully intact. “Penny Serenade” may be a weepie, but it earns the tears it draws through a genuinely heartfelt script and the powerful performances of its leads.

“Penny Serenade” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Tubi TV, and Paramount Plus. Runtime: 119 minutes.

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