Penny Serenade (1941): George Stevens; Melodrama, Starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant in his First Oscar Nominated Performance

“Our thanks to Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people,” said Peter Stone upon winning the Screenplay Oscar for Father Goose.

It had been the talk of the movie industry for years: Why hadn’t Cary Grant ever received a legit competitive Oscar. It seems absurd that the roles for which Grant did receive nominations deviated from his specialized image.

The first nomination was for Penny Serenade, a soap opera, and the second for None But the Lonely Heart, a proletarian melodrama.

George Stevens’ melodrama, “Penny Serenade,” reteamed Cary Grant with one of his favorite screen ladies, Irene Dunne.

Grade: B- (**1/2* out of *****)

Penny Serenade
Penny Serenade 1941 Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

While listening to a recording of “Penny Serenade,” Julie Gardiner Adams (Irene Dunne) begins reflecting on her past.

She recalls her impulsive marriage to newspaper reporter Roger Adams (Cary Grant), which begins on a happy note but later on is fraught with tragedy.

While honeymooning in Japan, Julie and Roger are victims in the 1923 earthquake, which results in her miscarriage and incapability to bear children.

Upon their return to the U.S., Roger becomes editor of a small-town newspaper, just scraping by financially. Despite their economic status, Julie and Roger want to adopt a child.

It takes a long time—until the kindly adoption agency head Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) offers help. But their happiness is short-lived, when their daughter Trina (Eva Lee Kuney) succumbs to a sudden illness at the age of six.

Depressed and hopeless, Julie and Roger decide to dissolve their marriage, but Miss Oliver once more comes to the rescue.

Though shamelessly sentimental, Penny Serenade is touching, balancing pathos with laughter.

Expert actors’ director Stevens handles well a crucial scene, in which Cary Grant is shown weeping like a boy.

Narrative Structure (Detailed Plot)

The film charts the meeting, courtship and marriage of Julie Gardiner (Dunne) and Roger Adams (Grant) through the popular songs relevant to each time period.

After their marriage on New Year’s Eve and a night in Roger’s train compartment en route to San Francisco, a pregnant Julie rejoins Roger in Tokyo, where he has a stint as a reporter.

Julie loses their unborn child in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake and returns with Roger to California despondent.

Things change when their friend Applejack Carney (Edgar Buchanan) encourages them to adopt. While Roger struggles to keep newspaper going in the fictional California town of Rosalia, Julie keeps house and fits out the nursery.

They apply at an adoption agency for a two-year-old boy, and receive a call from Miss Oliver (Beulah Bondi) that a five-week-old baby girl is available.

Though Roger would have preferred a boy, he falls in love with the baby, and he and Julie care for her during their one-year probation period.

When Roger loses the newspaper, the law will not allow him to adopt the baby without steady income. Roger delivers an impassioned plea to keep the girl, and the judge awards custody. Roger returns home to Julie with their daughter.

Roger and Julie are proud of their daughter, Trina, who is not yet old enough to play an angel in the Christmas play, plays the “echo” instead.

The following Christmas, Julie writes Miss Oliver that Trina has died from sudden illness. The child’s death sends Roger into a depression, and Julie resolves to leave him, as he no longer needs her.

Just as she is about to leave for the train station, the couple receive a phone call from Miss Oliver, saying that a two-year-old boy has just become available for adoption.

Roger and Julie embrace, ready to rebuild their marriage with  new child.

The film was not popular at the box-office.


Irene Dunne as Julie Gardiner Adams
Cary Grant as Roger Adams
Beulah Bondi as Miss Oliver
Edgar Buchanan as Applejack Carney
Ann Doran as Dotty “Dot”
Eva Lee Kuney as Trina (age 6)
Leonard Willey as Doctor Hartley
Wallis Clark as Judge
Walter Soderling as Billings
Jane Biffle (“Baby Biffle” in end-credits) as Trina (age 1)


Produced, directed by George Stevens
Screenplay by Morrie Ryskind, based on Penny Serenade 1940 McCall’s story, by Martha Cheavens
Cinematography Joseph Walker
Edited by Otto Meyer
Music by W. Franke Harling
Production and Distribution: Columbia Pictures

Release date: April 24, 1941 (USA)

Running time: 120 minutes
Box office $835,000

It’s no coincidence that Grant’s nominations were during WWII, when most of Hollywood A-list actors were mobilized into the military. Grant lost on both occasions. In 1941, the Oscar went to Gary Cooper for the patriotic Sergeant York, and in 1944, Bing Crosby took the prize for portraying a sympathetic priest in Going My Way.

Grant knew that he would never win an Academy Award, as he said: “Light comedy has little chance for an Oscar.” He was right. As I showed in my book, All About Oscar, comedy as a genre and comedic performances are the most overlooked in Oscar’s annals. None of the great comedians, Chaplin included, had won a legit Oscar, and Jack Lemmon won his Oscar for a soupy melodrama, Save the Tiger, rather than Some Like It Hot or another Billy Wilder comedy.

At the 42nd Oscar ceremonies, on April 7, 1970, Grant was given a special Oscar, meant to cover three decades of continuous achievement. Presented by Frank Sinatra, the inscription read: “To Cary Grant for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues.” Sinatra later explained: “No one has brought more pleasure to more people for many years than Cary Grant has, and nobody has done so many things so well.” The honorary Oscar was the show’s highlight and Grant’s only TV appearance.