At the beginning of Penny Serenade, Julie (Irene Dunne) and Roger (Cary Grant) are separating because their marriage is on the rocks. Roger leaves to do something, and while Julie is by herself, she plays a succession of records associated with different stages of her relationship with Roger. With the playing of each record, the tune becomes the background music of a flashback at important stages in their lives, beginning with when they first met. But the flashbacks show us what a great marriage they have, so we figure something really bad must have happened to cause these two to separate. After an accident, Julie is no longer able to have children, so they adopt a girl. At first I thought that somehow Roger was going to be responsible for her death, perhaps by accidentally running over her when she runs out into the street. She does die, but it is clearly not anyone’s fault, not even accidentally so. Furthermore, her death is not even seen, but only mentioned in a letter, followed by scenes of Roger and Julie being silent and sad. We never really believe that they are going to get divorced, and they don’t.
The plot of this movie is similar to The Marrying Kind, where another couple, Florie (Judy Holliday) and Chet (Aldo Ray) are about to get a divorce. Instead of records playing tunes from the past, the divorce judge, who can see that they have a good marriage, questions them, and their story is told in flashbacks, revealing what a good marriage they have, making us wonder when we are going to get to the part that made them so miserable. Once again, we find that a child died, this time by drowning; once again it is an accident for which neither of them can be thought to be responsible; and once again we can see that this is something that they will eventually get over. Sure enough, in the end they do not get the divorce.
The moral of these stories is that people who are in an unhappy marriage should stay together and work things out. There is something irritating about the way both movies are dismissive of just how miserable a marriage can be, as if married couples who want a divorce simply don’t realize how much they really love each other.