Struggling Couples, Silly Love Songs, and a Valentine’s Day Conception
—Paul McCartney from “Silly Love Songs”
By all rights, George Stevens’s 1941 film Penny Serenade should be to Valentine’s Day what Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. The season of silly love songs, candy, flowers, and date movies could do with a film about a couple struggling to honor the marriage vow, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”
Not that I’ve got anything against Valentine’s Day. If it didn’t exist, neither would I.
My mother was stone cold sober when she mentioned the occasion of my conception, a date later confirmed by my father. The revelation came when she was telling me the facts of life and my stunned response (“You and Dad did that?”) had less to do with pre-adolescent naivete than with my acute awareness of the lack of physical affection between my parents. Possibly the only reason I’m here in Princeton at this moment is because my father was living up to his part of a nationally accredited romantic situation. Otherwise, the most productive phase of the relationship took place when they were writing plays together the year before they got married. Two of their one-act farces, And Silently Steal Away and Mr. and Mrs. Uh-h, were published by Samuel French, and at the time of their divorce 37 years later they were still receiving small royalty checks. The plan was to move from Hutchinson, Kansas to New York City and write Broadway plays. To make ends meet, she would be a stenographer and he would play piano in a night club. On the way to the Bright Lights they ended up in Bloomington, Indiana, where my father became a Medieval scholar and my mother a legal secretary working for a Court of Appeals judge who put the make on her and later became the subject of a story in the Kenyon Review.
“It’s Love, It’s Love”
In the 1950s my father, of all people, filled the world with some pretty silly love songs of his own that I inherited in manuscript. Several of these ditties are so tuneful that I sometimes find myself whistling or humming the melodies. It’s hard to keep from smiling when I think of my reserved, undemonstrative father writing Tin Pan Alley lyrics like “It’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, I’m zoomin’/She caught my eye, I’m not so shy, we’ll multiply, we’re human!”
The period when my father was composing “It’s Love,” “The Magic of Love,” “It Can Happen,” and the others must have been like a reprise of the courtship year when they were collaborating on plays. My mother was actually sitting next to him at the piano singing along one night when some friends were over, an event I witnessed, amazed, from the top of the stairs. The most musically sophisticated and lyrically overwrought of my father’s compositions, “The Magic of Love,” begins, “If I wish, I could swim like a silvery fish,” and ends with four lines that my needy mother almost surely contributed: “Hold me tight! Keep me earthbound and still tonight./Lift your spell — let me breathe the air of the ordinary room we share./The enchantment is with you there/That’s the magic of love!”
Tucked in with the song manuscripts is a royalty statement for $229 showing that And Silently Steal Away was performed in 22 different towns in Minnesota between January and May of 1950 (with multiple performances in Olivia, Windom, and Thief River Falls).
Though this story doesn’t have a happy ending (what real-life story does?), my parents remained close after the divorce and were always there for each other, “till death did them part” fifteen years later.
In Penny Serenade, Roger and Julie, newlyweds played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, struggle financially in a desperate attempt to adopt a child when the bureaucratic odds are stacked against them.
The flashbacks that tell the story of Penny Serenade are structured around songs associated with the relationship, each in the form of a record that Julie is playing on the victrola, beginning with “You Were Meant for Me.” The theme is set from the first meeting in a record store where she’s a sales clerk and he buys a big stack of records (78s in those days), which gives him an excuse to spend time in her company. He walks her home, and after admitting he owns no phonograph, invites himself into her apartment to listen to some silly love songs. The next scene, which begins with the playing of another record, shows them shyly talking around embarrassingly relevant fortune cookies (marriage, a baby); then comes a big, rollicking, brilliantly directed New Year’s Eve party where Roger proposes to Julie just before midnight. A newspaperman on his way to a two-year assignment in Japan, he wants her to join him three months after he gets settled. They have only hours before he has to catch a 3 a.m. train. With Hollywood serendipity on their side, they manage to get married that same snowy night and make the train in time. As they’re sharing a passionate goodbye embrace in his compartment (in the picture shown below), the train’s about to leave, she has to get off — but she doesn’t. Next shot shows the train pulling into a station, the camera lingering suggestively on the compartment’s frosted-up, snow-edged window. In case we don’t get the point, a sign says “To New York 115 Miles.” The nudge isn’t necessary; their goodbye kiss makes clear what’s taken place, and the next time Roger sees her, in Japan, she has big news to tell him.
Although Penny Serenade shifts abruptly from romantic comedy to the dramatic mode typed as a “tear jerker” when it gets to the struggle at the heart of the story, it’s one of George Stevens’s finest films, with memorable supporting performances by Beulah Bondi as a sympathetic worker in an adoption agency and Edgar Buchanan as a tried and true friend. Grant and Dunne are even better together than they were in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). In both those comedies, one of Dunne’s many charms is her knowing laugh, but the half-laugh, half sigh that emerges when she perceives what Grant is up to that first day with the records is so right that it makes you laugh, too. Grant is no less subtle, speaking soft and low when he proposes and then kissing her with words of love we can barely hear.
Roger is the confident carefree Cary Grant that film fans know and love until an earthquake brings the couple’s world down on top of them, destroying the unborn child and Julie’s ability to ever carry a baby to term. After she recovers, they move back to the States and a small town north of San Francisco where Roger uses all of a small inheritance to buy a weekly newspaper that doesn’t make enough money to satisfy the adoption agency’s regulations. Eventually, thanks to the caring employee sensitively played by Bondi, they are allowed a one-year trial adoption of a baby, a little girl “like no other child.” Anyone who’s ever gone through the first days and nights home from the hospital with a baby will be touched and amused by the scenes depicting the panic-stricken inepitude of the new parents. The crisis comes a year later when Roger, still struggling to keep the paper going, appears before an unsympathetic judge and is told that because they’re financially incapable of supporting the child they will have to return her to the orphanage. Grant’s passionate, choked-up, ultimately successful plea is painful to behold. As the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson observes in his wise, eloquent review, the scene is “one of the rightly moving things in the picture.”
The most beautiful moment in Penny Serenade, however, occurs when Roger and Julie’s little girl, Trina, now 6, plays the “Silent Night” echo in her school’s Christmas play. As Hollywood children go, Eva Lee Kuney is about as good as you could hope for in her brief, touching, ill-fated part. Her role in the pageant becomes a piece of cinematic poetry involving a cloud on a string and a falling star. As Julie sadly puts the last record on the phonograph, a letter to the woman at the adoption agency reveals that the child has died after a sudden illness. Rather than inflict a death scene on us, Stevens and screenwriter Morris Ryskind simply show the impact on the parents. There’s no fight left in this couple; the marriage is over. Or so it seems until their guardian angel at the adoption agency gives them a call.
As far as I know, the framing device of a character playing records to accompany the flashbacks composing the picture is unique to Penny Serenade. It’s also one of the most conspicuous examples of product placement I’ve ever seen. All the records have the RCA label and are played on an RCA victrola.
Though it’s in the public domain, Penny Serenade is not easy to find on DVD. You can see it in its entirety on YouTube.
Now if only there were a film of my father playing his silly love songs with my mother sitting beside him singing along.