Penny Serenade (1941)

Toronto Film Society presented Penny Serenade (1941) on Saturday, December 2, 2023 as part of the Season 76 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 4.

Production Company: Columbia Pictures.  Director: George Stevens.  Screenplay: Morrie Ryskind, based on Martha Cheavens’ 1940 story Penny Serenade.  Cinematography: Joseph Walker.  Edited by: Otto Mayer.  Music by: W. Franke Harling.  Release Date: April 24, 1941.

Cast: Cary Grant (Roger Adams), Irene Dunne (Julie Gardiner), Beulah Bondi (Miss Oliver), Edgar Buchanan (Applejack), Ann Doran (Dotty).

Reflecting on the chapters of life, Penny Serenade is the story of a couple meeting, falling in love, and enduring the joys and heartbreaks of marriage and family.

Directed by George Stevens, he made great effort to ensure that the songs in Penny Serenade matched the time periods portrayed in the film.

The movie is a very early example of using music to establish not only emotions, but also evince feelings from each period of time; the use of zooming in and out on the vinyl record delineates the chapters in the story. A more current example of this would be Forrest Gump, with the use of popular music tied to historic events depicted in the film.

Prior to WWII, the directorial work of George Stevens was typically light, humorous, or sentimental. His early work was in slapstick films for Hal Roach Studios, until he joined RKO Pictures in 1934 and he went on to make feature and short films for the studio including Alice Adams (with Katharine Hepburn), Swing Time (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and (our personal favourite) Gunga Din – a fantastic adventure film with Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

When the USA entered the war, Stevens joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps; from 1943 to 1946, he headed a film unit under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His unit documented the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris, and more. Notably, Stevens and his unit filmed the discovery of both the Duben labor camp and Dachau concentration camp. He was a principal in preparing the film footage for presentation during the Nuremberg Trials. To understand the horror that impacted this man’s soul, the full documentary is available here, and includes his Affidavit (sworn by director, Captain John Ford) to the truth shown on this film.

Completely heartbreaking. After the war, Stevens resumed his career, but his wartime experiences profoundly affected him, and likely would qualify as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His post-war filmmaking became more dramatic; one biographer noted that he never made a happy film again. The change can be seen in his films such as A Place in the Sun (1951) [Academy Award-Best Director], Shane (1953), Giant (1956) [Academy Award-Best Director] and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). The drama I Remember Mama (1948) was only partly comedic.

Penny Serenade stars the dashing Cary Grant and lovely Irene Dunne. For his performance in this film, Grant was nominated as Best Actor, only to lose the Academy Award to Gary Cooper in Sergeant York. Believe it or not, Cary Grant was nominated only twice for an Academy Award and never actually won an Oscar; he was finally given an Academy Honorary Award in 1970. Like Grant, Irene Dunne also never won an Academy Award, despite five nominations and being considered one of the best actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

You may recognize the portly friend, Applejack Carney, played by Edgar Buchanan; certainly, his gentle demeanor and distinctive raspy voice may bring back memories of black and white TV shows. Buchanan played in more than a hundred films, but he is mostly remembered as Joseph P. “Uncle Joe” Carson in 222 episodes of the television series Petticoat Junction (1963 -1970) with cross-over appearances in Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies.

In those days, if you’re of an age, there was nigh an evening spent without good Ole Uncle Joe! Interesting fact: before appearing in his first film at the age of 36 (in 1939), Buchanan was a dentist and ran a dental practice with his wife, who was also a dentist. Buchanan and his wife graduated from dental school in 1928 and married that same year; they stayed married until his death in 1979. After his first film in 1939, Buchanan turned over the dental practice to his wife, and he went on to appear in seven films in 1940 and five films in 1941, including Penny Serenade, and worked regularly until 1974. Much admired by many, director George Stevens was quoted as saying: “There,” pointing at Edgar, “is a man with a natural instinct for acting, a gift of timing his every word and gesture almost as if he’d written the script.”  For a man who often played laid-back, sleepy characters, Buchanan had a busy schedule but, as Buchanan said himself, it “sure beats being a dentist.”

Notes by Carol Whitaker

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