Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Overlook: Pennies from Heaven (1981)

by JB
Hollywood was once willing to gamble on truly unique films—like a musical about the Depression featuring a wildly popular standup comic lip-syncing to old standards. It’s sad that Hollywood might not be capable of making risky films like this any more.

Audiences and critics generally hated Pennies From Heaven when it was first released in 1981. As would be the case for Bill Murray’s 1984 change-of-pace film The Razor’s Edge, American audiences preferred their funnymen to keep on funnying; they were simply not prepared to accept Steve Martin as anything other than The Jerk, from his debut film (and massive hit) of 1979. The budget for the sprawling, ambitious Pennies From Heaven was 22 million dollars (about 58 million dollars today). It grossed less than 10 million dollars worldwide.

This is a shame because Martin reportedly spent six months learning to dance: Pennies From Heaven is a true Hollywood musical. By the 1980s, American audiences apparently held musicals in such low esteem (unless they were animated) that Martin’s energetic, flawless dancing in the film wasn’t enough to either draw them to theaters or keep them entertained once they got there.
The Plot In Brief: Perennially dissatisfied sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) wishes his sales territory were more lucrative, he wishes that his frigid wife Joan (Jessica Harper) would share her inheritance with him, and he wishes overall that his life would change. He takes solace in—and believes in—the magic and uplift promised by the songs he peddles through Depression-ravaged Central Illinois.

During a routine visit to a downstate music store, he meets schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) and falls in love. Arthur’s illicit love affair and his kindness to a homeless “Accordian Man” (Vern Bagneris) collude to provide the life change Arthur so desperately seeks.
I get why some people—especially people accustomed to seeing Steve Martin riffing about cat toys in his trademark white suit and fake arrow-through-the-head—could be put off by this film. The reality of Pennies from Heaven is hopeless and bleak, the happiness promised by its music unattainable. It’s an audacious move: to use an escapist genre like the Hollywood musical to rub audiences’ noses in the banality of everyday life while questioning our desire and ability to take solace in entertainment. This seems like an odd and contrary message; as Daffy Duck would often exclaim, “Thanks for the sour persimmons!”

In the non-musical portions of the film, the realities of the Depression—and the failings of human nature—are certainly not soft-pedaled. At one point Arthur’s wife Joan fantasizes about killing him with a scissors. Later, when Arthur is suspected of a serious crime, Joan tells the detective interviewing her that he should cut off Arthur’s penis and bury it somewhere. The most deeply disturbing line—a line I have carried in my head since 1981—occurs when Christopher Walken’s Tom is trying to seduce Eileen. “I hope you’re not a tease,” he says to her, emotionless, “Because I’ll cut your face.”

(Excuse me while I take a shower to wash the shudders out of my brain.)
Another problem may have been the film’s central concept. Screenwriter Dennis Potter (who also scripted a celebrated BBC miniseries upon which this film was based) employs a Brechtian distancing device that audience members might have found off-putting, laughable, or just plain creepy. Whenever a character in the film sings, they are lip-syncing to a version of the song recorded in the 1930s. This provides a chilling “otherness” to the vocals, as well as hammering home Potter’s point about the way our reality never lives up to our fantasies.

Roger Ebert famously observed that a great film generally contains three great scenes and no bad scenes. Actually, Ebert was not a fan of Pennies From Heaven; I beg to differ, and offer the following three great scenes in Pennies From Heaven—not surprisingly, are musical numbers:

In one stunning sequence, Arthur treats a homeless man to a meal in a diner. Arthur asks the man how on earth he can remain so hopeful; he has nothing. The entire front wall of the diner rolls out of view, the homeless man begins to dance in the rain, and the rain transforms into sparkling copper coins. Though the music and singing remain at normal speed, much of the dance is in slow motion. This is the title number, and it is breathtaking in its scope and beauty.
Later, Arthur and Eileen try to cheer themselves up by attending a movie. They sit in the dark staring up at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Suddenly, they are dancing on stage in front of the movie screen, flawlessly matching Astaire and Roger’s movements; another cut, and they have replaced the stars on the screen. Arthur and Eileen, now in black and white, finish the number themselves, singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Finally, Christopher Walken turns in the film’s tour-de-force number, playing a pimp trying to entice Eileen into a life of “money for sin” by performing Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” At the time, audiences only knew Walken from his Academy Award-winning role in The Deer Hunter; few realized that he’d enjoyed a previous career as a trained Broadway hoofer. This number, really a lascivious striptease, defines what is meant by “showstopper.” Don’t believe me? Here, take a look:

ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: A recent trip to a big downtown bookstore netted me a copy of The Age of Movies: Selected Writing by Pauline Kael. I have of late been devouring the book, remembering fondly how I grew up on Kael’s New Yorker reviews and that she influenced my critical faculties from a very young age. Serendipity! Rereading Kael’s original review of Pennies From Heaven, I was once again struck by how Kael was right and everyone else at the time of the film’s original release was wrong.

Kael writes, "Pennies from Heaven is the most emotional movie musical I've ever seen. It's a stylized mythology of the Depression, which uses the popular songs of the period as expressions of people's deepest longings—for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time—there was never a second when I wasn't fascinated by what was happening on the screen.” Kael points out that Pennies From Heaven’s direction by Herbert Ross was flawless, its cinematography by Gordon Willis was gorgeous, and said that several of the dance numbers were “just about perfection.”

Pennies From Heaven wound up nominated for three Academy Awards, winning none. Gordon Willis won the Best Cinematography prize from the National Society of Film Critics.
I caught a screening the other night on Turner Classic Movies and was blown away all over again by the film’s sheer audacity, its confidence that its audience will find this material and this approach fascinating and at least meet the film halfway. There are images and sequences in Pennies From Heaven that are among the most memorable and affecting that I have experienced in my movie-going lifetime. I weep that moviegoers are no longer willing to meet a film like this halfway—to accept that this might not be the movie they were expecting and to keep their minds open to the unique pleasures and perspectives it offers. I fear that Hollywood is no longer willing to roll the dice on risky projects like this.

Pennies From Heaven is available to buy or rent from Amazon Instant Streaming. It is also available on DVD. Purchase the new Warner Brothers MOD version; it is much more affordable than the original MGM factory-pressed disc. This outstanding film cries out for a 4K restoration and an extras-laden Criterion Collection Blu-ray release.


  1. I absolutely love Pennies from Heaven.

    I think that it sits alongside a number of movies from the early 80's - darlings like 'Raging Bull' and bete noires like 'Heaven's Gate', that have nothing to do with the 80's and everything to do with the 70's - exhibiting the kind of large-scale, cine-literate, made-for-adults films that audiences stopped going to, and studios stopped making.

    I really think Steve Martin's performance (as an actor, as well as his physicality as a dancer) is his best - and he really learnt the wrong lessons from the film's rejection by audiences and critics - he never again made a totally sincere performance as a leading man outside of comedy. And it's probably Bernadette Peters's best role too - there's something heartbreaking about how accepting she is of all of Arthur's lies and manipulations and of the clearly awful life she has ahead.

    With 'Play it Again Sam', 'The Sunshine Boys' and 'Pennies from Heaven', how come Herbert Ross isn't better known and loved?

  2. Well, you and I both love his work. That's a start.

  3. I have seen only clips of this but it did really want me to make me track it down. For some reason it was hard to track in this country. I will go on another dig!

  4. I have seen only clips of this but it did really want me to make me track it down. For some reason it was hard to track in this country. I will go on another dig!

  5. I remember watching an interview once where Steve Martin referred to the commercial failure of this film and said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "I knew I'd made it in show business when I made a movie that bombed and they let me make another one." That quote has always stuck with me. If anyone knows the source of the interview or has the exact quote, I'd appreciate it. briswatek@gmail.com

  6. Just finished watching this on Filmstruck and enjoyed your history of the film's reception. I'm fascinated with the movie, less for its stark disparity between fantasy and reality and more for its examination of male predation and female hesitation. Virtually every male character in the film evidences predatory attention toward the female characters, most obviously in the case of Arthur, who confuses his harassment with romantic wish fulfillment, but also down to the police detective who becomes titillated by Arthur's wife's story of his sexual fetish. Even the simple-minded hobo is possessed by murderous impulses when confronted by a defenseless woman. I'm not sure what all this theme amounts to, beyond the film's overall message that human nature has a dark side, but I'm enjoying thinking and reading about it.

    1. That's a spot-on interpretation, though much of this might be due to author Potter examining the dark side of the Thirties romantic ideal? It does explain the dark creepiness that makes the film hard to shake off...

  7. Watched this again for the first time in years and agree 100%, it’s such a dark little gem.

  8. A friend recommended this film to me a few years back and it happened to already be on my watch list because of Jessica Harper. It instantly became a favorite of mine. I can sorta see why it bombed on its release, but it’s still really frustrating and infuriating that movie audiences, back in 1981 and even more so now, can’t tolerate anything but the most obvious and spelled out, flashy garbage. Oh well.

  9. wow it would seem that this movie is quite underattied but hopefully this will get future relases cause its a great movie from what ive seen of it