Directed by Herbert Ross
Produced by Herbert Ross & Nora Kaye
Screenplay by Dennis Potter based on the BBC miniseries
In 1979 Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters teamed up for what is one of The Ten Funniest Movies I’ve Ever Seen: “The Jerk” It’s a movie that like “Blazing Saddles” “Porky’s” “Young Frankenstein” “Back To School” and a few others I’ve seen over and over and even though I know when the jokes are coming I still laugh my ass off as though I’ve seen it for the very first time. “The Jerk” was incredibly successful and when word hit that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters were going to re-team in another movie, everybody couldn’t wait. So what did they follow up their hilarious comedy smash hit with?
Oh, nothing too shocking. Just a movie about adultery, prostitution, abortion, murder, rape, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual obsession and psychological dysfunction. Oh, yeah. It’s also a musical.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is different from your conventional musical in that the actors don’t sing in their own voices. Instead they lip synch the songs, all of which are popular, happy, merry tunes of The Great Depression sung by the original artists. They are songs that express the inner feelings and fantasies of the characters who inhabit that dark and depressing period of American history where there is very little happiness and hope is non-existent. So for instance, when Steve Martin sees Bernadette Peters for the first time and breaks out into “Did You Ever See A Dream Walking?” he’s lip-synching to Bing Crosby’s voice. It takes a bit of getting used to and it’s not just a gimmick either. If it weren’t for the happy songs and the glitzy, lavish musical/dance numbers that are done in true 1930’s Busby Berkeley style, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a painfully difficult movie to sit through.
Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a man who spends most of his life wishing he were doing something else or being somebody else. He’s sick of his nowhere job as a sheet music salesman and dreams of owning his own record store. He’s insanely in love with the songs he peddles and honestly believes their promises of a happy and prosperous life full of dance, rainbows, eternal sunshine and champagne bubbles. His marriage to the sexually repressed Joan (Jessica Harper) is even more boring than his job and it doesn’t take much for him to stray when he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters) a painfully shy schoolteacher while he’s on a four-day road trip. Arthur seduces Eileen and then returns home where he pathetically and selfishly wheedles Joan into giving him the sizeable inheritance her father left for her to buy his record store.
Eileen discovers that she’s pregnant and is forced to leave her job and her home. Having no support from Arthur she falls in with a dangerously charming pimp (Christopher Walken) and begins a new life as a prostitute. It’s a life that Eileen takes to surprisingly well since her affair with Arthur awakened a darkly sluttish aspect of her personality that Eileen finds she likes a whole lot. It’s while she’s servicing a customer in an alley that she and Arthur encounter each other again. They find that their unholy lust for each other is as strong as ever and they make plans to run away and start a new life together. Eileen wants to get away from her pimp and Arthur now hates the record store he once wanted more than anything else in the world. However, they’re unaware that Arthur is being sought by the police for the rape and murder of a blind girl he had a five-minute conversation with. The same day that Arthur gave a lift and bought a meal for a homeless accordion playing beggar (Vernel Bagneris) who may be the one to actually have committed the crime.
Now I’m sure that there are some of you who are saying that this sounds like a horribly depressing and sad movie and in fact, it damn sure is. If it weren’t for the wonderfully elaborate and fun musical numbers presented as the inner fantasies of the characters, watching PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is enough to make you want to go get drunk afterwards. When the movie stays in the real world it’s a gloomy, depressing world with no brightness and no joy. Arthur’s seduction of Eileen has no romance or charm and is in fact embarrassingly clumsy. There’s a really sleazy scene where Joan at last gives in to one of Arthur’s fetish fantasies and the pain on her face made my stomach flip. Arthur verbally abuses everyone he meets. Even while he’s buying a meal for the accordion player he takes every opportunity to insult the feeble minded man. I think it’s very telling that the only person in the movie Arthur treats like a feeling human being gets killed.
But those musical numbers are so full of life and energy that you can’t help but be lifted out of the depressing mood of the other parts of the movie and pat your feet along with the music. “My Baby Said Yes, Yes” is a showstopper with Steve Martin and dozens of chorus girls high kicking on a staircase that looks a mile long while ten foot high silver coins merrily roll all over the place. Eileen is in front of her dingy classroom filled with sad-eyed children in ragged clothing when suddenly the classroom is transformed into a gorgeous music hall and the kids are tap-dancing like mad on mini baby grand pianos dressed in gleaming white outfits while Eileen herself is now wearing a silver gown that looks as if she was sewn into it while singing “Love Is Good For Anything That Ails You” Christopher Walken brings down the house with “Let’s Misbehave” and a terrific dance routine where he loses every article of clothing except for his hat, shoes and shorts. And the best number of all is the wonderfully surreal “Pennies From Heaven” with Vernel Bagneris dancing in a rainstorm that actually turns into a shower of pennies. He does a marvelous dance during the violin solo and his lip-synching of the song is so powerful that I was mesmerized.
I thought the performances in this one, especially by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters was exceptionally good. Remember that in 1981 he had only done four movies and starred in one, this being his second. I think it took a lot of guts for him to play such an unlikable bastard so early in his movie career. There are parts of the movie that had me wishing I could reach into the screen and strangle the shit out of Arthur for screwing up other people’s lives with such selfish callousness. Bernadette Peters is easily an acting match for her co-star and her transformation from depressed schoolteacher to streetwise streetwalker is a bit too convincing. Once Eileen gets a taste of the Dark Side she gives herself over body and soul.
This movie does the one thing I though it was impossible to do: make Jessica Harper look plain. She goes through the movie looking as if she expects a safe to drop on her at any second and some of the scenes where Martin’s character verbally abuses her, the pain in her eyes is so clear that I was hurting for the poor child myself. Christopher Walken makes the most of his only big musical number and does more with it than most other actor would have done with an entire movie. And that’s another reason why I liked PENNIES FROM HEAVEN: when I watch a dance routine I like to be able to see the whole dancer, not just their feet or their smiling faces. Herbert Ross knows how to film a dance scene. He lets the camera stay still and lets the dancers move. The result is exhilarating.
So should you see PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? Absolutely. Yes, its story is depressingly grim and the characters are desperately sad but it’s a marvelously powerful movie with outstanding musical numbers and great acting. I honestly think that it was a movie made well ahead of it’s time and it probably scared the hell out of the legions of Steve Martin fans who paid their money expecting a laugh filled romp and got this instead. Don’t you miss out. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is one of the most imaginative and innovative musicals I’ve ever seen. Enjoy with my blessings.