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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.