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  • Writer's pictureJennifer

...Weepy "My Ode to 'Penny Serenade'"

As the saying goes, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” And the flick “Penny Serenade” from 1941 is a perfect example. Melodrama at its teary-eyed best, “Penny Serenade” is an obscure, dusty old gem that often doesn’t make the cut on classic film “Must See” lists. But it should.

Why? Starring beautiful “Queen of the Weepies” Irene Dunne, and ultimate leading man Cary Grant in his first Oscar-nominated performance, “Penny Serenade” is a touching love story defined by loss. What’s more, it’s a strikingly progressive, honest film by even today’s modern standards, let alone the 1940s’.

It’s a tale about two sweet young people, Roger and Julie, who meet in a New York City record store. They fall in love, wed, and then experience a painful tragedy of a miscarriage. Noteworthy – though “Penny Serenade” is fictional, this miscarriage is set in the real-life Japan earthquake of 1923. This “shaky” scene is absolutely mesmerizing. It’s exceptionally well-done. Here I was, all going crazy over Dunne walking breezily around in her simply GORGEOUS kimono, when little by little, the scene starts to change. The peaceful garden ducks start to flutter on their walkway. And the wind chime on the roof begins to shiver. Before we know it, there goes Julie’s wish of a baby. Sad!

The couple, crestfallen, return to the USA. They settle down near San Francisco, where Roger opens a newspaper after Julie is told she can no longer have children. But eventually the two decide to adopt a baby girl. The sweet munchkin, Trina, turns out to be the soothing balm and exciting joy that makes this family complete. All feels right in the world. That is, until Roger’s paper goes bust, risking the official adoption. And later, Trina, at the age of six, falls ill suddenly and hopelessly. Spoiler – she passes away. Long, long sigh. Here’s one of many brilliant moments in “Penny Serenade.” We really and truly don’t see this tragedy coming! So, the ultimate question of “Penny Serenade” becomes – “Can this couple survive not one, but two major tragedies?”

“Penny Serenade” boasts some of the best Old Hollywood performances. It’s downright AMAZING to see the two delicious crackpots of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant no longer hamming it up as they did in 1937’s legendary screwball comedy “The Awful Truth.” Instead, they show expert acting range, as their characters here are rather quiet, gentle, sensitive souls. And yet, Roger and Julie aren’t meek, weak, or without fire. Therein, lies the strong acting skill of Dunne and Grant. They deliver truly “round” characters.

Further, melodrama is arguably possessing of “inherent mawkishness.” But Dunne and Grant give us melodrama that feels real, and makes us realize, “Wow, sometimes life IS actually melodrama.” Drat. As much as we don’t like to be reminded that bad things happen in life, that challenge our faith and shake us to the very core, they do. And what more beautiful actors to shine this light than Dunne and Grant?

Now outside of the impressive earthquake scene, also keep a look-out for the bassinet scene. Yes, how precious. I’ve never seen any movie, Old Hollywood or New, take such time and care to film a scene like this. It’s integral to understanding the adventure of simultaneous “love and fear” that these young parents are on with their new baby. Plus, seeing an old rickety bassinet from the early 1900s is charming.

So, bring the tissues for “Penny Serenade.” It holds many big and small surprises, many heart-filling and heart-breaking moments that I just don’t see in movies anymore. Like Irene Dunne, you’ll be humming some far-off tune alongside your sweet gramophone. It’s old movie heaven, even if you wind up sad and puffy-eyed. Sing it with me – “You were meant for me. I was meant for you.” Thank you, “Penny Serenade,” for always providing that good cry when we need it.



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