I know that I'm really early with this. I was last month too, but then again, these films are just begging me to watch them and I'm trying to bide my time and space them out and watch them closer to the actual deadline but I just can't. I've been aching to watch this since I DVR'd it, and having it staring at me every time I passed it over to watch a different film, loving so pitiful as if to say "am I not good enough for you" finally got to me and so I caved and watched this last night. I don't like to wait too long to actually compile my thoughts, because I don't like to forget all of the things that came rushing to my mind while watching, and contemplating, any particular film, and so here it is.
My review of 'Penny Serenade', the second film in my Blind Spot selections for this year (you can read my thoughts on 'The Shop Around the Corner' here).
A few years ago I happened to stumble upon ‘The Awful Truth’, a 1937 screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant that chronicled the end of their marriage, pending divorce and eventual reconciliation. It was a very important film for me at the time, for I saw it during a brief separation from my wife and looking at the same situation I was facing in a humorous (and hopeful) light was just what I needed to ‘face the day’ so-to-speak. Thankfully, as I mentioned, that separation was brief. My wife and I did reconcile and things between us are better than they have ever been. Since then, that movie has had a special place in my heart. It also marked the first time that screen legends Grant and Dunne worked with one another. They would work together twice more, and ‘Penny Serenade’ was their third and final film together.
Reading the synopsis for this particular film, I couldn’t help but feel like this was ‘The Awful Truth’ just with a gimmick. Yes, there are stark differences, but the general gist is the same. A couple, at the end of their marriage, face impending divorce and work to reconcile. The fact that it also starred Dunne and Grant felt like too much of the same, and yet I was intrigued because of the similarities as well.
And then the film started.
One thing that I didn’t expect from ‘Penny Serenade’ was how dramatic this was going to be. Considering my previous experience with this pair and this subject, I expected another screwball comedy. Yes, there are funny elements to this film, but overall there is a very dramatic tone.
Melodramatic, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
‘Penny Serenade’ tells the story of Julie Gardiner and Roger Adams. They meet, they fall in love, they get married, they struggle, they suffer tragedy (miscarriage) and then they struggle to adopt and move on. Told in vignettes inspired by records kept by Julie to memorialize their ‘happy marriage’, the film is broken up in segments that tell of specific times. Their meeting (at a record store, how appropriate), their dating, engagement, business struggles, baby issues, adoption, fight for baby, life as parents, life AFTER parenthood; all of these aspects given ample room to breathe, but maybe too much air.
I’ll start by saying that I like this movie. I know that it is largely considered a classic, and you just don’t talk bad about classics (which I’ve done many times and will consider to do), but I do take issue with many aspects of this film that I just don’t think worked very well.
First, the gimmick.
While I actually find the idea of composing sequences of events shaped by the music found in Julie’s book to be inspired and ripe with potential, those scenes didn’t feel swift enough to flow and eventually the film become bogged down by scenes that didn’t fit well together or wound up overstaying their welcome. For example, the baby bath/diaper change scene was just tiring to watch. One long shot that became burdensome to the viewer. I could charge George Stevens with this, since he could have played with a few angles in order to make the scene less uninteresting, but really it just should have been edited down. I also found that the gimmick itself wasn’t worked into each scene (or group of scenes) well enough to validate the gimmick itself. I expected it to be cleverer in that regard. The first scene (their meeting) was so rich and so beautiful and so clever that it set the bar so high it was hard for the film to reach those heights again.
I also take serious note with the melodramatic nature of the film. It is so incredibly obvious with all the sappy sentiment that it loses some of the clever touches to an overabundance of pandering to the audience. It wants to tell us everything and beat everyone over the head with their point (look a baby, another baby, a picture of a baby). The entire second half (with regards to anything baby related) almost feels like an entirely different film altogether, losing all lightness and becoming this overly saturated depiction of familial tensions.
It tries way too hard.
I also really disliked the conclusion, and I’ll elaborate on that a little here (so, I guess I’ll yell SPOILERS for anyone unfamiliar with the film itself). When ‘Penny Serenade’ concludes, Julie and Roger are in the throes of divorce (or impending). They have lost their daughter in a swift and unexpected death that has rattled them. They cannot communicate with one another. They are punishing themselves (mostly Roger) and in the same breath punishing one another and when all the dust has settled Roger is convinced that he just cannot be around Julie or his home or anything and anyone that reminds him of what he has lost. In her desperation, Julie has written to the same adoption agency where they had received their beautiful Trina, and into the hands of Miss Oliver (the woman who made their adoption possible) lands a letter that touches her so much, she suddenly finds them another child to adopt. This obviously fixes everything and ‘Penny Serenade’ ends on an upbeat and joyful, hope filled ending despite only three minutes earlier looking about as gloomy as an Ingmar Bergman film.
This just doesn’t work for me. This feels so lazy and like such an easy way to cop out of really telling us the whole story. The fragmented way the story is told also suffers most in the finale, because we have so much build up to then have so little real explanation of anything and it feels so rushed, like they knew the film was running long but couldn’t be pressed with actually editing what they had already shot. The ‘a baby fixes everything’ mentality is also a wash when you consider that this wasn’t about a baby anymore but was about the LOSS of a child, and making the ‘quick fix’ all about replacing one child with another seemed rather heartless and inaccurate. The fact that the facts surrounding the new adoption (It’s a boy! He has dimples! He’s two years old!) makes this all feel very much like a “don’t worry, you’re finally getting what you always wanted” is all the more disconcerting.
It was borderline offensive, to tell you the truth.
I do understand that a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is needed with some of these older films, and a lot of issues were sugarcoated for the censors sake (aren’t we glad we don’t have to deal with that anymore) but sometimes it just rings false, and I take issue with that here.
Despite all of these quibbles, the film does benefit from two very strong anchors carrying the film from start to finish. Cary Grant received his first of two Oscar nominations for this performance (most likely for his teary eyed monologue with the judge regarding Trina) and it was deserved. Even when the film sails into nonsensical territory, he sells it. Even more impressive though, is Irene Dunne. She is just magnificent here. She has a less showy role, but she says so much with her eyes, and since she has those few scenes in-between segments that help tie them all together (she’s the one that switches out the records), you get this sense that she is filling every aspect of this movie with her presence and her character. The supporting cast is less consistent. Edger Buchanan is softhearted and moving, but Beulah Bondi is so stiff lifeless (despite trying to convey the thoughtful angel) and her character is so ridiculous that I found her off-putting.
I know that this sounds like a lot of griping, but I really didn’t hate this. I guess I just really expected so much more.
So there you have it, entry number two! Despite my issues with the film, I'm very happy to have seen it and don't consider it an early knock towards the overall strength of the films I chose for this year. It had it's strengths, and they were enough to keep me watching, but upon reflection the film just had a lot working against it and it could not come up to my expectations, which I admit were very high.