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Penny Serenade (1941)

When Irene Dunne snuck into a preview of her third and final teaming with Cary Grant, she overheard a woman behind her say, “Oh, another Irene Dunne-Cary Grant comedy.” Before the film was half over, that same woman was sobbing. That’s the charm of this film—the fact that it reveals a new side to a screen team best known for their farce techniques in screwball comedies The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940).

They star as a couple on the verge of divorce. As Dunne listens to the records they’d accumulated in their time together, the film flashes back to their courtship, the disaster that ended her pregnancy and left her incapable of bearing children, and their attempts to raise an adopted child. It would all be terribly mawkish in other hands, but with Dunne and Grant starring and director George Stevens mining not just pathos but also their lighter moments, as when family friend Edgar Buchanan gives their new baby a bath, it strikes a perfect balance.

Dunne was always happy for the chance to move into drama, but Grant had a hard time opening up in the more vulnerable moments. She and Stevens both had to coax him to cry on screen, with the director assuring him he’d never regret it. The scene, in which he begs a judge to let them keep their child, proved to be one of the film’s highlights and helped Grant earn his first Oscar nomination. Grant would later call this his favorite of all his performances.

d. George Stevens, 119 minutes, DCP

World premiere restoration courtesy of Paramount Pictures