Cary Grant is normally known for playing urbane sophisticates throughout his career. (Or, if he wasn't playing those kinds of roles, he was often cast in comedies where he played a helpless guy at the mercy of a woman who has taken control over his life.) He is occasionally dismissed by some people for always playing "Cary Grant" in his career by no-nothing critics who presume that genuine acting involves altering one's appearance and personality in every performance. There's a lot to be said for actors who are able to refine and perfect a particular persona, and nobody played "Cary Grant" better than Cary Grant. The funny thing is, Cary Grant has stated in interviews that he wished he could be more like the on-screen persona that people attribute to him, which strongly suggests that he wasn't playing himself at all and that playing "Cary Grant" was in itself a challenge. What's forgotten are the occasions in his career where Grant allowed himself to drop that veneer of confidence and play a more serious character who is flawed, insecure, self-centered, and immature. One of the finest performances of Grant's career, which allowed him to play a multi-dimensional individual, is George Stevens' "Penny Serenade" (1941) also starring Irene Dunne.
"Penny Serenade" tells the story of a young couple, Roger (Cary Grant) and Julie Adams (Irene Dunne). Julie recalls their relationship while playing various phonograph records that underscore different points in their relationship. They met by chance in San Francisco as Roger was walking by a music store that Julie was working in. When a record playing over the loudspeakers starts to skip, it causes Roger to enter the store and introduce himself to Julie. The two start dating and fall in love. However, Roger is a reporter with an irresponsible streak who has no interest in getting married and starting a family with Julie, which is Julie's ultimate dream in life. When Roger gets an assignment with his newspaper in Japan, he realizes how much Julie means to him and asks her to marry him before he leaves. After they are reunited in Japan, Julie starts to realize Roger's financial irresponsibility when she learns that he spent an advance on his salary to furnish their home lavishly. This alarms her because she is pregnant with Roger's child and wonders what kind of husband and father he will shape up to be. Her concerns become compounded when he suddenly announces he's quit working for the newspaper and has spent money he has inherited so they can travel the world before they have to settle down and become parents. However, an earthquake suddenly erupts at that moment and Julie loses the baby. Due to her injuries, Julie is unable to bear any children.
Roger buys a small town newspaper in Rosalia, California to allow both he and Julie an opportunity to settle down. Roger hires his best friend Applejack Carney (Edgar Buchanan) to help manage the newspaper and Julie remodels the apartment above the newspaper offices as a home for she and Roger. Sensing Julie's unhappiness without a child, Applejack encourages her to consider adopting a child. Applejack lies to Julie that Roger also wants to adopt a child, which traps the reluctant Roger into agreeing to it. Julie writes to an adoption agency requesting a 2 year old boy with curly hair and dimples. During the preliminary interview, when the head of the adoption agency Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) asks why they are requesting a child of that age, Julie explains that that would have been the age of their child had she not miscarried. When Miss Oliver drops by Roger and Julie's apartment unexpectedly while they are in the middle of refurbishing their home, she is appalled by how disorganized it appears to be. However, she softens when she sees the lovely nursery Roger and Julie have prepared for their child. She announces that a newborn infant girl has become available for them to adopt. Roger resists the idea of having a girl, but Julie convinces him to take a look at her before making a final decision. When Roger and Julie visit the nursery to see the infant, Julie falls in love with the child immediately. Miss Oliver allows Roger and Julie to take the child home for a one-year probationary period. Despite his initial reluctance, Roger grows to love the child deeply and becomes a doting father to the little girl he and Julie both name Trina.
However, a year later, as the time for Trina's final adoption hearing draws closer, the newspaper has gone out of business and Roger is generating no income. When the judge at the hearing denies the adoption, Roger makes a heartfelt plea to become Trina's legal parent. He promises to do everything he has to in order to earn a living to support his daughter. The judge relents and grants the adoption. Trina (Eva Lee Kuney) grows into a sweet child who brings much happiness to the Adams' household. Roger and Julie proudly attend a Christmas pageant with Trina playing the Echo (hiding behind a cloud) in a performance of "Silent Night" Trina slips during her performance and causes a mild commotion backstage, which causes her to worry that she won't be chosen to play an Angel in next year's Christmas Pageant. However, tragedy strikes when Trina becomes sick and passes away from a sudden illness. The following Christmas, Roger and Julie are at home when a mother and her son knock on their door, asking to use the telephone because their car has broken down on their way to the Christmas Pageant so the son can play the Echo in a performance of "Silent Night." Roger and Julie offer to drive the mother and son to the pageant. However, the sight of seeing all the children lined up to go into the auditorium proves too much for the grieving Roger, as he is reminded of the fact that Trina would have been among that group of children. On the way home, Roger stops in front of a bar and gets out. He tells Julie he's never coming home because he doesn't want to be around anything that reminds him of Trina. Roger eventually comes home just as Julie is all packed and ready to leave town on the next train. As they are about to leave for the trains station, they receive a phone call from Miss Oliver, who had received a letter from Julie informing them of Trina's death, telling them that a 2 year old boy, with blue eyes and curly hair has become available and would they be interested in adopting him? Julie abandons her intentions to leave and she and Roger start discussing the modifications they will need to make to their home to accommodate their new son.
A low-key, touching tear-jerker, "Penny Serenade" is one of the finest performances of Cary Grant's career. Allowed to play a fully-dimensional, realistic human being, Grant courageously illuminates all of Roger's flaws and weaknesses as a husband. Even though he sincerely loves Julie, Roger's immaturity causes him to let her down repeatedly throughout the course of their marriage. At the outset, he doesn't want to get married or have a child. When he is married and Julie is pregnant, he quits his job and announces they are traveling around the world as a way to postpone taking on the very adult and mature responsibility of becoming a parent. When he finally attempts to settle down by buying the newspaper in Rosalia and allowing Julie to try and create a home for themselves, he fails to recognize Julie's sadness over not having a child and has to be manipulated by Applejack into agreeing to adopting a child. Even then, Roger insists on only having a boy and needs to be convinced into seeing the baby girl that Miss Oliver has brought to their attention. To Roger's credit, he is soon won over by baby Trina and does become a good father to her. But when Trina dies, Roger again lets Julie down by not being there for his wife at her time of grief. He is so caught up in his grief and self-pity that he doesn't have time to consider his wife's needs. Roger may possess the charm that we associate with Cary Grant's roles, but he doesn't have the self-confidence as other Grant characters. When Roger announces on New Years Eve that he has been reassigned to Japan, he tells Julie, "Let's get married right away tonight! I'll be able to send for you in three months. I'll have the money then....Well what did you think I'm gonna let a funny little red head like you run around loose here? What if some other fellow came along and...Oh Julie, I've got to have you." Roger doesn't have the confidence to believe that Julie loves him enough to wait for him, which is something we would not normally expect from a character played by Cary Grant.
George Cukor once said that Cary Grant refused to play Norman Maine in his 1954 remake of "A Star is Born" because he knew that Grant would never expose himself emotionally on-screen to play a character that ventured far from his usual persona. "Penny Serenade" refutes that notion, as Grant allows himself to be as vulnerable as he has ever been on-screen. Grant has the confidence to project all of Roger's immature and childlike qualities and proves what a versatile and talented actor he truly was. I like the little touches that Grant brings to Roger that help to illuminate the character, including the nervous way he peers over Julie's shoulder when she's holding Trina for the first time, which demonstrates how frightened Roger is of what this infant child represents to his life, the end of a carefree existence and the beginning of adult responsibilities. Grant and Irene Dunne are also wonderful during the long sequence depicting Trina's first night at home, as both new parents become acquainted with addressing the needs of an infant child over night. Grant's particularly endearing when he wakes up to look in on Trina, finds her missing, and becomes a hysterical wreck looking for the child, believing she's been kidnapped, only to learn that Julie brought her to sleep in the same bed with them. He's also endearing in the sequence the next morning when Applejack and the other newspaper employees turn on the printing presses, only to be scolded by Roger to turn the machinery off because it will wake up the baby. Roger has finally learned to be concerned for someone other than just himself.
Roger's genuine and sincere love for Trina is one of the most touching father-daughter relationships captured in the history of cinema, reminiscent of Rhett Butler's (Clark Gable) deep love for his daughter Bonnie in "Gone with the Wind." Like Rhett, Roger is emotionally shattered by the death of his daughter in a way that is so authentic and raw, it's difficult to watch. Like Clark Gable, Cary Grant was not a parent at the time this movie was made, so it's commendable that he was able to authentically articulate Roger's love for Trina in the movie. (In contrast, when my friend Katie and I went to see the 1994 movie "Intersection" in college, we both laughed at how phony Richard Gere seemed in portions of the movie where he was supposed to act like a devoted parent to his daughter. Clearly, Grant and Gable had an inherent emphathy for young people that Gere appeared to sorely lack at the time.) I also like how Roger is as nervous as a schoolboy during the "meet-cute" scene near the beginning of the film when he meets Julie for the first time at the record store and ends up buying a stack of 27 phonograph records as a result. We don't expect Cary Grant's characters to try and make an excuse to carry on a conversation with a pretty girl the way Roger does when he meets Julie. The screenplay cleverly has Roger walking Julie home and has him ask her, "Have you got a Victrola inside?...Would you let me hear this one? Otherwise I'll have to take it home and imagine how it sounds." When Julie learns that Roger does not own a phonograph player, it suddenly dawns on her the extent to which Roger is attracted to her. She suggestively pulls the record out of the slipcover and leads Roger up the stairs to her apartment. In this day of overtness, the subtlety of Roger's sly and shy pick-up line is absolutely refreshing.
But Grant does even better in two emotional scenes that rank as his best work as an actor. When Trina's adoption is threatened due to Roger's lack of income, he angrily and emotionally confronts the Judge who has denied their application. Grant lays it all on the line as Roger comes clean on all of his shortcomings as as husband, "Well, you don't know how badly my wife wanted a child. It wasn't so important to me. I don't know, I suppose most men are like this but children never meant a great deal to me. Oh, I like them all right I suppose, but...Well, what I'm trying to say is, Your Honor, the first time I saw her she looked so little and helpless. I didn't know babies were so...so little. And then when she took hold of my finger and held onto it, she just sort of walked into my heart Judge and she was there to stay. I didn't know I could feel like that. I'd always been, well, kind of careless and irresponsible. I wanted to be a big shot. I couldn't work for anybody, I had to be my own boss, that sort of thing. Now here I am standing in front of a judge pleading for just a little longer so I can prove to you that I can support a little child who doesn't weigh quite 20 pounds. It's not only for my wife and me that I'm asking you to let us keep her judge, it's for her sake too. She doesn't know any parents but us. She wouldn't know what had happened to her. You see, there's so many little things about her that nobody would understand the way Julie and I do. We love her, Judge. Please don't take her away from us. Look, I'm not a big shot now. I'll do anything, I'll work for anybody. I'll beg, I'll borrow, I'll... Please Judge, I'll sell anything I've got until I get going again. At least she'll never go hungry and she'll never be without clothes not while I've got two good hands to help me." Grant courageously plays this scene with the right air of desperation and humility and does not seem to be concerned with how this would affect his usual screen image with the public. While clutching his Fedora hat in both of his hands, and his voice cracking with sorrow, he allows all of Roger's flaws to be exposed in an honest, humble, and sincere matter and has stopped putting on airs about himself to everyone, but most importantly himself.
Later, after Trina has died and Roger has walked out on Julie, he returns home and finds that she is packing to leave. Roger humbly acknowledges, "I don't blame you, Julie. I don't blame you at all. You should leave me. Why don't you say it honey? It's all true. I haven't done any one of the big things I planned to do for you. We're right where we started. We're still struggling. I've let you down all around, honey. Well, all I needed to make it 100% was for you to leave me. And I can't think of a reason in the world for you not to. I'm licked, Julie." Julie candidly responds, "You're not licked, Roger. It's just us. We're licked as far as our being together is concerned. When something really came along to hit us hard enough, we couldn't face it together. I needed you an awful lot these last few days. But you've been miles away. I've been entirely alone right here in this room with you." What's amazing about Cary Grant's performance in "Penny Serenade" is how, even though becoming a loving and responsible father to Trina helped him grow immensely, Roger is still a flawed and selfish human being with a capacity to give in to his weaknesses when the chips are down. There is no idealized notion that the flawed Roger has completely grown up and reformed like we would normally expect, because he is still filled with a lot of insecurity and self-pity about himself. He still has a lot of growing up to do, and he will continue to do so even after he and Julie welcome the 2 year old baby boy into their lives. Rather than giving us a stereotypical happy ending, the last scene in "Penny Serenade" merely indicates that, for Roger and Julie, life goes on despite the tragedies they have faced because they still love each other deeply.
Cary Grant and Irene Dunne build upon the natural chemistry they established with each other in the screwball comedies "The Awful Truth" (1937) and "My Favorite Wife" (1940) to portray another married couple but in a more serious and realistic scenario. Dunne complements Grant's flawed humanity by portraying a quietly patient woman waiting for her husband to finally be there for her emotionally. Edgar Buchanan gives a wonderfully warm performance as Grant's wise and earthy best friend Applejack, and Eva Lee Kuney is touching and sweet as Trina. They have wonderful rapport together in the birthday dinner scene before Trina's Christmas pageant performance. But it's Cary Grant who really stands out in this superb cast. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for "Penny Serenade," but lost to Gary Cooper that year for "Sergeant York" (1941). Grant should have won that year on the basis of his courage in taking on such a challenging and atypical role for himself. There's an assumption that movie stars of the classic era of Hollywood were afraid of giving performances that would have exposed their emotions in a raw and vulnerable manner. Cary Grant's heartfelt performance in "Penny Serenade" refutes that short-sighted notion.