(Early) Performance of the week: Cary Grant in Penny Serenade (1941)

Cary Grant was pretty much the star of the 40s, appearing in A LOT of the critically-acclaimed movies from that decade. He is certainly a respected personality, and widely regarded as an iconic movie star, most notably for his acting abilities and his impeccable fashion style. Truth be told, the few movies that I’ve seen him in weren’t the best showcase of his acting talents. I felt that he totally misfired in Suspicion (same year as Penny Serenade), and was a bit overshadowed by his brilliant female leads in The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story and Notorious. Still, I could sort of see why people were worshiping him so much: he definitely can act, he has excellent comedic timing and is certainly a charming presence on screen (heck, Diane Keaton loves him). I just didn’t find myself going crazy over his acting like the whole world does.

You can pretty much say that Penny Serenade was the game changer for me, in which he showed his talent for dramatic performances and received his first Oscar nomination for best actor. But before I talk about his performance, let me just confess how much I loved this movie, and in fact it might be one of my favourites from this decade. What I find strange is that it’s far from perfect – the script, frankly, is kinda mediocre and you can see that the writer was trying a little bit too hard to make the audience burst into tears in each scene. The editing also takes a while to get used to (records), and the obvious use of foreshadowing (involving fortune cookies, earthquakes and angels) is something that I find a bit annoying and manipulative. However, what made me love the film is the BRILLIANT acting all around. It’s impossible to believe that this sappy screenplay can actually be brought to life with the sincere, honest and realistic performances by the entire cast, even the memorable supporting players like Beulah Bondi and Edgar Buchanan. Irene Dunne is fantastic (as usual); she had the typical cliche role to play but her realistic and nuanced acting style brought out all the layers of her character, successfully avoiding the traps of playing the melodramatic, teary-eyed wife. All of the clumsiness and nervous tics she brought to the character felt very natural and believable, like when she first bathed the baby and Miss Oliver’s surprise visit. Nowadays people praise Grant for his court hearing scene (more on that later), but I think Dunne played her part in adding to the emotional intensity as well, especially when she tearfully looks out of the window as he sets off, and when she anxiously waits at the table as he returns home. It’s hard to imagine that this woman played the hilarious Lucy Warriner in The Awful Truth – she would really have deserved a nomination for her work here (much better than the actual best actress winner anyway). The emotional honesty of the cast really lifted the weaknesses of the script, so much so that the darkness of some parts gave me chills. I never saw an over dramatic melodrama from the 40s, but a pretty believable story about a couple’s very tough and unfortunate marriage. It was like a 1941 version of Blue Valentine, and yes you can say a guilty pleasure of mine lol.

Still, the star that got recognized was Cary Grant for his performance as Roger Adams. It’s easy to see why though; although I don’t think less of Irene Dunne’s performance, Grant had the advantage of a) more complex character development and b) a super emotional, scene-stealing monologue. However, what made his performance worked here is the naturalism and honesty in his role. Admittedly, there are times where I feel he can be a bit repetitive with his charming man shtick in his other films, but over here he had to play an ordinary man – and it worked. I wouldn’t say it is a de-glam (FAR from it), but it would certainly require a bit of imagination if you were asked whether Cary Grant could get rid of his usual charming, suave, smooth-talking persona to play an ordinary man who falls in love and awkwardly chases this girl he sees working in the record store. And it works; it never comes off as contrived and fake, but actually kinda sweet and charming in a different way, like the way he nods when Julie got the hint about inviting him into her home.

Grant always has this distinct awkwardness and clumsiness that he uses as comic relief in his charming man roles, especially The Awful Truth, but over here he plays it in a different way that fits the tone of the film rather than as slapstick humour. He makes it such that Roger is clearly an inexperienced father and the clumsiness comes naturally from the character. I mean, the scene when they first brought the baby home is so damn memorable because of his funny antics, like when he clumsily drops the things he is carrying, and when he takes off his wife’s shoes so that they can climb the steps quietly. The way they ran up the steps was so funny, but not in the same way as the screwball films. There was this somewhat innocent and naive tone to it, making it endearing and sweet.

Still the film is a drama, and there are some emotionally heavy scenes that he has to cover. What I particularly admired is how he handled the flaws and changes to the character so believably. Earlier on, we got to see how impulsive and childish Roger (I wanted to type Jerry LOL) was when he quit his job upon acquiring a small fortune, but his change of heart after Julie’s accident during the earthquake was very believably handled. The same goes for his attitude towards their adopted daughter; his initial dislike of children, and his desire to have a son was clear from the beginning, but his attitude change as he found out how much he loved his daughter was never overplayed, obvious or excessively sentimental. You can really see how strong his love for his daughter has developed over the years, and that’s what makes the famous courtroom plea so devastating. It never rings false to me, and you can really feel the sadness and desperation of the character (I mean, I can sort of imagine James Stewart overdoing this part so…). I must say though – the odd camera angle kinda affected it a tiny bit, since you mostly see his side profile during this scene, but you could still hear the emotions in his voice.

However, the most fundamental element that made his performance work would be his brilliant chemistry with Irene Dunne. I never for a second doubted them as husband and wife, and even though they fell in love 10 minutes into the movie, it is actually believable. However, unlike The Awful Truth, both of them realised the more sombre tone of the film, and you can sense the emotional intensity during the periods when the marriage is strained. Of course, he had the help of Dunne’s terrific performance, but it takes two performers to make these scenes work.

All in all, this is a terrific, heartbreaking performance by a great film actor. It’s not a legendary achievement by any means, but it’s still brilliant and definitely worth watching. And crap, I know I’m not supposed to but I loved the film despite its flaws! I mean, it takes something to really move my stone-cold cynical heart, much less what could be a typical 40s melodrama, but it did! And it is very easy to watch actually, despite the darkness of the story at times.

An early post before I start work on Monday!

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