Underrated Films to Remember: PENNIES FROM HEAVEN

Well, this has been a busy month so to speak, so for lack of a better word, we’re getting into reruns months, where I’ll go back and revise some of my first articles when I was an independent film critic. So, to start reruns’ month, let’s talk about one of my favorite films, go figure.

Pennies from Heaven is a 1981 US adaptation of the late British playwright Dennis Potter’s 1978 British miniseries of the same name. The miniseries was an ambitious attempt to combine the dark, depressing saga of The Great Depression, and mix those qualities with those of ‘30s musicals such as Top Hat & Swing Time in a precursor of “deconstructing of a specific genre.” The miniseries starred a pre-Who Framed Roger Rabbit Bob Hoskins in the lead role.

A (not so) accurate representation of how MGM got money for the project.

Production-wise, if nothing else it had one of the highest pedigrees I’ve ever seen for a film. Starting from the below the line employees, the cinematographer was the famed Gordon Willis, known for his work on the Godfather films, as well as numerous Woody Allen films. The editor was another Godfather alum in Richard Marks. Costume designed was by the famed Bob Mackie, and Ken Adam (who defined the look for the James Bond franchise, and created the war-room for Dr. Strangelove), was brought on as “visual consultant.” The music talent was also top notch. There were two music arrangers: Marvin Hamlisch (known for A Chorus Line) and Billy May (known for his association with Frank Sinatra). Thus, we get to the director; you’d expect a Coppola, or a Scorsese, right? Well, not really, here it was an unsung figure in New Hollywood, Herbert Ross. Ross was (and is) not known as one of New Hollywood’s finest directors. However, he crafted a solid directorial career and many of his films make themselves known on multiple “most underrated film” lists of the 70s: The Last of Sheila (1973), The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), and California Suite (1978), to name three. However, he believed in this project, being one of the producers, and had directed musicals before, in the 1969 adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and worked as a choreographer for the 1968 film version of Funny Girl. So, if nothing else there was talent, here. I should get to the plot, and overall thoughts then get into what works and what doesn’t.

The year is 1934, the city: Chicago. Despite FDR being elected two years before, the nation isn’t doing any better. Arthur Parker is a struggling sheet music salesman, who is unhappily married to a pretentious, rich heir: Joan, played by Phantom of the Paradise alum Jessica Harper. Arthur is played by Steve Martin, in his second starring role, against type, and seemingly against likeability. He is a complete and utter jerk (and not like his debut starring role, in The Jerk), he is a horndog, lives in his own world where songs are his life, seemingly buttoned down, and completely unlikable. And yet, Martin pulled it off, it’s hard to play against type successfully, and it’s harder to play someone who is a nuanced character (read human), and not wholly the over-the-top. (There’s another musical, with Steve Martin, I’m thinking of, right now, and you’re probably able to guess what the other film is, and I also love that film too.)

Pennies from Heaven loves the musicals it homages, yet contains the type of realism and honesty seen in New Hollywood films, and creates a fascinating mix. Here’s a scene paying homage to Busby Berkeley.

After trying to get a loan for a record store and trying to get her inheritance fails. This leads to the first real musical number, reminiscent of Busby Berkeley numbers of the era. This leads us to the first true revelation of Pennies from Heaven. It’s a musical, but none of the people sing their own songs, they lip-sync to 1920s-30s recordings, in a kind of cinematic duality, where both musical number and drama exist, but the musical numbers are seemingly in the characters head. It’s not a bad idea regarding the musical concept, and the surprising thing is it’s executed well, even though Potter had to go to executive issues with rewrites (which we’ll get to in a little bit).

While driving home, he picks up an accordion playing hobo (Vernel Bagneris): and one scene later, he first sets his eyes on Eileen, a school teacher (Bernadette Peters) at the music shop he works at. Peters herself is quite good. Any Sondheim aficionado can attest to Peters’ expertise in performing in shows with difficult concepts, and Pennies is no exception. Bagneris himself was surprising, he had no film acting experience, but had gained notice for his 1979 Off-Broadway show, One Mo’ Time, a review based off New Orleans vaudeville in the 20s, and the cast album was nominated for a Grammy, the following year.

In a movie, where no one sings their own songs, Bagneris’ tapdance number to “Pennies from Heaven”, made the number his own.

While on her way back, Eileen spots Bagneris, playing his accordion. Martin notices this and gives him a meal; likewise this leads the hobo into singing the titular song, and Bagneris makes the number his own, despite him not singing the song in question, through his expressive dancing. In the drama sequence, he’s this lowlife, and utterly desperate, and in the number, he’s confident and hopeful. This is one of those films, which requires you to focus on the said theme of duality.

The choreography itself is not surprisingly quite incredible. It was choreographed by Danny Daniels, who had worked on Broadway, and whose most notable musical contribution in film was the “Anything Goes” musical number in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

The Freed Unit style number I mentioned, and the number with Martin playing the Banjo

After paying him a quarter (ironic joke missed by the film), he meets Eileen at her house, after getting instructions from her students, and meets her. Arthur goes to a bar to see his friends, which leads into a Freed Unit type number, which includes Martin playing the banjo (A nice touch). The other thing which will become apparent while watching the film, is the creepy, vacant smiles, considering who’s writing this, it’s probably a comment on the artificiality of the musical concept itself, providing the contrast to the 1930s drama, itself. Again, an excellent idea, but I’m not sure if Ross noticed this duality, but the fact it’s in the film suggests he probably did.

Meanwhile, at Eileen’s school, she manages to get to dance in sets reminiscent of Astaire-Rogers musicals, to the tune of “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You.” The stark white sets, with her students’ creepy smiles, reminiscent of those musicals. It’s the duality I mentioned, and I would say the film peaks here. But there are more peaks.

The “Love is Good for Anything That Ails you” Number was one of the many peaks in this film

Nevertheless, Martin goes to Eileen’s work and picks her up. He guilt-trips her into having sex with him, by lying and saying his wife had died in a motorcycle crash. After returning home late to Jessica Harper, she tries wooing him by putting lipstick on her breasts in a sensitive area. Harper suspects he’s cheating her; but Arthur denies it, she’s visibly crying. This leads into Arthur to tell the story of a couple who made love in an elevator, while the doorman looked away.

Eileen, however, is fired due to a former affair, resulting in an illegitimate pregnancy (I think). The principal offers her some money, she rejects but gives it to her anyway.

I wasn’t kidding, there was an elevator in one of the musical numbers.

By this time, Arthur has opened his own store and, on his way back meets a blind girl and tells her she’s beautiful. And here’s where the film has problems, the structure and how it got to its ending. The deaf girl comes literally out of nowhere and seems like it’s only there to create a conclusion. While it works, it feels contrived. I can’t attest to this was in the original miniseries, but considering the miniseries was 7½ hours, and the movie is 107 minutes, there was going to be material cut out, maybe the connective thread was better explained before the thirteen rewrites, Potter had to do on his material.

However, his relationship with Eileen is going through a rough patch. After Eileen asks if he’s married, he plays the old hound dog routine of his wife dying and writes her a check to stay afloat. Martin gives the elevator story mentioned earlier, and literally, an elevator comes out of the house and to see Martin’s face during all of this is priceless. And of course, they do it in an elevator. Not literally, this is the musical number, but Martin does see her nude.

In a scene which probably stole the film, Christopher Walken appears in one scene, does a striptease/tap dance, and then is never seen again for the rest of the film.

Meanwhile, accordion man meets the blind girl and through an accident kills her. After seeing Eileen nude, Arthur drives home, and an officer thinks he committed the murder, due to his suspicious look, while driving He heads home and tells Joan he saw a message, and this change of heart seems suspicious. Eileen is doing less well and goes to meet Tom, a pimp played by Christopher Walken. Yep, you read this right. Likewise, Walken convinces Eileen to be a hooker. All through a great musical number involving Walken striptease turned tap dancing to the tune of “Let’s Misbehave.” Fun fact: he got praised from Gene Kelly himself, I am not joking.

Thus, Eileen becomes “Lulu,” and Arthur’s store isn’t doing well, Martin dreams about a number with him, Peters, and Harper. Eventually, Arthur meets Eileen as “Lulu,” and enter a replica of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Through exposition, we learn Eileen had an abortion. While Arthur believes songs can come true, and realizing his store was a hopeless endeavor, he and Eileen destroy all the vinyl records.

Martin, Peters and Harper singing “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”

Harper finds out the whole truth: he did have an affair, and he’ll probably be convicted. During all this, Arthur and Eileen/Lulu, decide to go to the movies, the Astaire-Rogers musical Follow the Fleet. They imagine themselves in the film, dancing to “Let’s Face the Music & Dance.”

I won’t reveal the ending but remember the duality theme I mentioned; it plays out the same way.

Not Rogers & Astaire, but an incredible simulation.

So now the production history, and other production info. MGM, had intended this to be an “Anti-Musical”, a ridiculous concept, because an “Anti-Musical” would be a drama, technically, but I understand what they were trying to promote, this was a film with a $22 Million-dollar budget, a lot of money in 1981, and it only made about $9 million. Part of it could potentially be blamed on an ad campaign which played up the musical numbers and didn’t portray the dramatic elements in the film. The critical reviews were mixed-to-positive at best, the highest praise came from Pauline Kael, who proclaimed the film: “The most exhilarating movie musical I’ve ever seen.” Which is high praise from Kael, and the funny thing is, it’s still exhilarating. It’s invigorating because it’s rarely been seen, and its concept is so unique, so out there, yet done so well, it works. The film wasn’t ignored at Oscar time either, gaining three nominations, one for Best Screenplay (for Adapted Material), Best Sound, and Best Costume Design.

So is this a recommendation? Yes, without a doubt. Pennies from Heaven is a unique film with a unique concept, which works on a metatextual level, and while it’s not an uplifting film, it’s rewarding for its performances, and solid writing.

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Matthew Simon
If he isn't watching a forgotten library title, Matthew Simon is watching anime/films or attending anime conventions.

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