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Penny Serenade

Gasser

Penny Serenade (1941)

If you have seen the fabulously funny My Favorite Wife, then like me you might be duped into thinking Irene Dunne and Cary Grant‘s presence in Penny Serenade also promises a plethora of laughs. You’d be wrong though. Penny Serenade is a compelling story and is well acted, especially on Dunne’s part, but if you sit down expecting a comedy, you will be greeted with a deluge of depression.

The story is told in flashback as a sad Dunne as Julie plays records that take her back to when the songs were first heard. The primary tune is one that caught the ear of Grant’s Roger as Julie simultaneously caught his eye. The man enters the record store where the young woman works and finds a way to get her alone in a sound booth for the rest of the day. There the romance begins.

We move through their relationship that progresses into a hasty New Year’s marriage ahead of newspaperman Roger’s transfer to China for a several-year stint. Julie eventually joins him and finds he has purchased a nice home for them … on credit. She is already pregnant but that will not last when an earthquake shakes their home apart, leaving the woman infertile.

Roger’s next move is to buy a small-town newspaper, and he moves the wife into the home above the printing presses. Family friends press the couple about adopting a child and eventually both spouses relent. They take in baby Trina, but the paper goes under during the adoption trial period and, without income, the orphanage must repossess the child. In his most dramatic show of the flick, Roger emotionally persuades a judge to allow them to keep the girl.

Trina grows up to age 6 (Eva Lee Kuney) when she participates but does not appear in the Xmas pageant. She plays an echo and moves bits of scenery about. She is promised the role of an angel for the following year but will fail to fulfill that destiny.

Penny Serenade in many ways is hard to watch. Grant’s Roger is obnoxiously foolhardy (at least for a frugal viewer such as myself), and we sympathize with Julie who will express her concerns but not put her foot down. The story follows the growing together and apart and together and apart of this couple. Dunne does a great job of wearing her emotions on the surface and has always been an equally talented dramatic actress as she is a comedic one. Grant, on the other hand, really is at his best in comedies. He does, however, finally prove to us that he actually cares about the kid in his plea to the judge, which is truly a scene worth witnessing for the Cary Grant fans out there.

I cannot deny that Penny Serenade is a good movie, but it does turn me off in some ways. It is hard to convince oneself to watch such a gloomy movie, no matter how well acted –and I’m not trying to suggest this is “Romeo and Juliet” depressing– but the couple’s moments of happiness are quickly chased with distress. I additionally am such a fan of My Favorite Wife that I cannot help but compare the two and put Penny Serenade in last place.

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Alice Adams

Gasser

Alice Adams (1935)

     History paints Katharine Hepburn as anything but a delicate, girlish sort, and the woman is often discussed as an ideal feminist. In Alice Adams, a young Hepburn does indeed embody a sort of feminist part, but it is hidden beneath so thick a mask of social properness and female expectations it is nearly unbearable.

     Alice belongs to a family consisting of a nearly invalid father whose job is being held at the pharmacy while he recovers, a brother who gambles and is otherwise socially disagreeable, and a mother who wants her daughter’s dreams to come true so much that she pushes the family into untenable situations.

     At the film’s start, Alice is preparing to go to a dance at the home of the small town’s upper crust family. The young woman hopes no one will recognize her two-year-old dress and makes a corsage of picked violets when purchasing one proves unaffordable. Her date is her unhappy brother, whose ugly truck prompts Alice to request he park it in the street lest anyone see her exiting it.

    At the social affair, Alice walks about with the air and poise of a well sought-after woman, but finds she is the only one left without a dance partner. She eventually subjects herself to dancing with an oafish fellow with whom she earlier would have been too proud to be seen. Just as her situation is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for us to watch, the handsome Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray) asks an introduction with Alice and engages her in a spin around the floor. Arthur is from a wealthy family and is allegedly engaged to the party’s hostess Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). All while dancing, Alice rattles in soft and gay tones about the semi-fictional life she pretends to live. When the dance is over, Alice feigns a full dance card to meet Arthur’s expectation that they are not able to share another dance, despite his desire to. The girl then retreats home, separating her brother from the gambling he was conducting with the servants in the coat closet.

     Alice is smitten but knows her social and familial standing is not adequate for the likes of Arthur. Nevertheless, she runs into him on the streets of the town and allows him to walk her home while she again runs her mouth about fanciful things. When they reach her house, Alice tries to walk on by to disguise her shabby dwelling, but the mailman gives her away. Arthur is utterly unphased by any embarrassment Alice thinks she has suffered before him and asks if he may come around some night, to which the girl agrees.

     The flowers wilt in their vase as days pass and no Arthur appears. When he does make his debut, the house is in less than pristine condition in Alice’s eyes, so the two retire to the front porch. There Alice again spins yarns of a life not quite her own as she attempts to flirt and offer herself as a suitable mate for the socialite. This activity continues for weeks until finally Alice and her mother (Ann Shoemaker) agree it is time he came around for family dinner.

     As Alice has become ever more in love with Arthur, her mother has observed how the family’s financial difficulties negate her romantic efforts. Alice has not been invited to a dance because of her social standing, and must make an excuse as to why she cannot attend with Arthur. The Adams patriarch Virgil (Fred Stone) once developed with a partner a formula for a perfect glue. That partner died and the pharmacy owner took the formula with long-lost promises to produce it for the men. Mrs. Adams thinks Virgil should turn the discovery into a business to better support the family, but the man thinks doing so would betray the boss who has been so kind to him and his family. A final push by mother, and Virgil moves forward and sets up a factory.

     The night Arthur comes to dinner is near disaster with sweltering heat, a tardy brother and a hired maid who is inept with serving. When Arthur leaves, the pharmacist J.A. Lamb (Charley Grapewin) arrives to tell Virgil off about the glue formula. He says he is opening his own factory next to the Adams plant and intends to run him out of business. Sour words are exchanged, and Alice finally takes matters into her own hands. She explains why her father decided to open the factory and his true feelings of respect for the employer. Her properness falls away with every word as we see the true woman beneath. Arthur is unknowingly sitting on the porch and has heard the entire situation.

    The tragedy of Alice Adams is that the character shows very little of her true self. She is not a particularly masculine sort underneath, but she is far from the delicate flower she puts before Arthur time and time again. It is frustrating to believe Arthur could tolerate Alice’s fakeness and still be interested. The man theoretically should have seen through the mask, but he could not have known that what was beneath would be something he would like. The entire romance seems improbable from the start. When Arthur approaches looking for a dance, I was expecting the gesture to be a cruel joke.

     I cannot see myself ever watching Alice Adams again. Hepburn’s performance was great and MacMurray was thoroughly handsome and semi-romantic, but the whole flick set me on edge. Hepburn’s persona made me squirm because all I wanted to do is smack her and tell her to be herself. She doesn’t exactly set a good example for young women who think of themselves as socially inadequate.

Shane

Ring a Ding Ding

Shane (1953)

     After much prodding from Ryan’s father and at least a year sitting idle on the DVR, Shane finally earned the attention of my “play” button. I have never been a fan of westerns, to the chagrin of some, and I am probably primarily turned away by the dirty, hot settings and the general action theme those films tend to offer. I think anytime I watch one, I find myself wondering why people would choose to live in those remote, lawless towns when civilization lies elsewhere in the country –but that is just my perspective. I have been warming up to the genre lately primarily through exposure to some of the better-acclaimed features, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, which I adored.

     Although it will not be labeled as my favorite western, Shane was definitely worth watching. It follows the troubles of a family and a stranger as they push against a gang of land owners trying to stake claim on properties farmed by homesteaders. Alan Ladd is the mysterious Shane who arrives at the film’s start on the property of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin). Joe’s son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) is immediately intrigued by the man wandering through their land, and the film includes the ups and downs of that idealization. Joe and his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur) want the man to stay on at the ranch to provide a needed extra hand and Shane agrees.

    
     Trouble starts when Shane goes into the very small town to pick up supplies for Joe and he runs into the Ryker gang, which is trying to run the Starretts and many other families off the land. Opting to take the high road, Shane allows one man to insult and threaten him before walking away. The next encounter is less congenial. When the group of homesteaders and their families hit town, Shane ends up in a fist fight against a whole slew of men that he ultimately wins when Joe joins the brawl. Rufe Ryker (Emile Meyer) calls in a gunslinger from out of town who seems to have a history with Shane. To this point, no bullets have flown among the feuding groups, but the threat is imminent, and one overly brave homesteader is shot down by this new villain, Wilson (Walter Jack Palance), prompting other families to pack their belongings.
 
     What struck me most about Shane was the lack of gunfire for the majority of the film. The old west seems always to be portrayed as a place where duels and gunplay are an everyday activity. The altercation among Shane, Joe and the Rykers is all fists, chairs and other implements, but no guns. This fight goes on for some time and is quite brutal by 1950s standards. It highlights not only what a contender Shane is but how strong Joe is as well.
 
     We are entreated to very little information about Shane. We do not know from where he came, he seemed to not know where he was going, and we do not know why he is aware of Wilson, having never seen the man before. Shane shows us early on how paranoid he is, drawing his gun at the sound of Joey cocking his unloaded child’s rifle. That mystery persists, however, through film’s end.
 
      Shane has no lack of great performances. I have been a growing Jean Arthur fan and was pleasantly surprised by her turn in this flick. The normally stylish, squeaky-voiced flirt was subdued and lovely in the supportive wife role. She was far from glamorous but radiated beneath the dirt as we wonder what sort of feelings she might have for Shane. The young boy is also quite impressive in his first role. De Wilde would go on to play the teenage brother in Hud a few years later before dying in an auto accident at age 30.
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