‘Penny Serenade’ or — High Fidelity?

(Warning — contains full plot description for the movie plus potentially distressing, upsetting, flippant language and imagery regarding babies and their well-being)

I’d heard of ‘Penny Serenade’ (1941) for years but had never seen it until last night. “What a delightful title!” I mused. “And it stars Irene Dunne, Cary Grand AND Beulah Bondi? This is going to be simply adorable.”

(Two emotionally grueling and punishing hours later) — Christ! Somebody pour me a fucking drink!

It all starts so innocuously with Julie Adams (Irene Dunne) listening to some vinyl records of songs that remind her of various points in her marriage and her life. Each song provokes a specific memory and flashback. Yet something is obviously wrong as her husband, Roger Adams (Cary Grant), isn’t present and all the signals are not terribly optimistic regarding his absence.

And so, via song, we witness the Adams’ meet, fall in love, settle down, start a business and try for a family. It’s a rather hokey device to be honest and Mrs. Adams has some questionable tastes in music (who the fuck actually owns the song ‘Happy Birthday to You’ on vinyl anyway?!) but it’s a way for the title to make sense.

Family is important to Julie and when she reads in a fortune cookie the words “You will get your wish. A BABY” she glows. After they are married she visits Roger in Japan, where he has secured his dream job, and breaks the news that she is pregnant. This is really all rather touching.

And then an earthquake hits and a building collapses on Julie.

It’s a truly shocking sequence especially as, to ram the point home, the camera lingers on a shot of Julie’s fortune cookie prediction about having a baby lying in the wreckage as a torrent of bricks, masonry and debris come smashing down onto it with a pulverising force. It’s so unsubtle it wouldn’t have been much more disturbing if they’d just shown someone hitting a foetus with a hammer instead.

Distraught and depressed Julie and Roger return to America to rebuild their lives. Roger opens a newspaper in a small town and it’s not long before they decide that, as Julie can no longer have children, adoption could be a good idea. With the support of a kindly administrator at the adoption agency (Beulah Bondi) they are granted custody of a beautiful five-week old girl. They name her Trina and they adore her.

Trina grows up to be a beautiful little girl (actually she doesn’t. She ends up looking more like some freaky, skin-covered robot who can only communicate via a series of unnerving pre-programmed smiles) and it’s not long before, one day, she excitedly tells her parents that she has been given a special part in her school’s nativity play and the part she is going to play is that of an angel.

Run, Trina! Run! Seriously, if you’re a kid in one of these movies and you say you’re going to be an angel then that means that, by the next reel, you’re going to be dead!

What was it with Hollywood movies of this time that made them so prone to killing off children, either by some incurable disease or tragic accident or consumption or stupidly talking out loud about being an angel and then — BLAM — so long, kiddo! Seriously, if you’re a baby or toddler and happen to be reading this then, for the love of god, if you ever find yourself trapped in a 1940’s Hollywood drama and you develop a tiny, little cough or given some heavily foreshadowy dialogue then escape as quickly as you can! Claw your way out of the celluloid, gnaw through the sprockets and crawl your way out the edges. Do anything it takes but just get out!

Needless to say Trina dies (off screen, thank god) and this plunges Roger and Julie into another depression. It seems as though their marriage cannot last without a child (which, oddly, makes them ENTIRELY inappropriate as parents if they need a kid in order to stick together).

Fortunately the kind, but utterly unprofessional, lady at the adoption agency has ANOTHER baby ready and waiting for them and so the film leaves us with the hope that Julie and Roger will finally have a happy family life together… or maybe this one’ll meet some awful fate too and this couple will just keep on trying until every baby in America is dead.

Bloody hell. What an exhausting watch!

I couldn’t click with ‘Penny Serenade’ and I’m not sure why. There’s sensitivity and intelligence here but also mawkish manipulation so I never quite settled with the film; I was emotionally exhausted but very rarely emotionally engaged. One of the problems is with the children who feel like caricatures as opposed to real humans so I couldn’t connect with them. Maybe this was why I gave an internal shrug of indifference when I discovered Trina had died. It’s not that I’m heartless but I’d be lying if I said I cared about her in the slightest. Besides, it was obvious her number was up as soon as she opened her mouth.

Also, although Roger and Julie go through the mill I didn’t really care too much about them either. They just seemed so, so… selfish? The performances by Dunne and Grant are as nicely balanced as expected but I still didn’t give too much of a damn about them or their fates.

Or maybe it’s because ‘Penny Serenade’ comes from a different time, a time when child mortality was a bigger issue and the prospect of other children dying, these ones all grown up and in uniform, was on the horizon. Or maybe it’s because I’m a heartless asshole. After all, I am a bachelor with no children of my own who puts all his care and attention into his collection of jazz music. Maybe if, during the Japanese earthquake, Roger and Julie had lost all their Keith Jarrett records instead then I might’ve cared more. Enduring that would certainly bring a tear to my eye.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.