After his famous stint on Saturday Night Live and critically-acclaimed stand-up act, Steve Martin made his way into films in the late 1970s. Securing a solid (if completely bonkers) hit with The Jerk (1979), Hollywood seemed to feel Martin could only fill a very particular niche: the retro movie. Maybe it started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), maybe not; all we know is that the 1980s were host to some fine films where Martin played in remakes, reimaginings, or period films set earlier in the 20th century, and we are the better for it.
One of the best, though sadly maligned, films of this kind is Pennies from Heaven (1981). Based on a really top-notch British TV miniseries starring Bob Hoskins, the tone and plot in the U.S. version has been significantly watered down from the original. There is a tough, nasty edge to the British series, heavily softened in the film by making the characters of Arthur (Martin) and Eileen (Bernadette Peters) more hapless than cruel.
Arthur is a sheet music salesman in Chicago in 1934. He’s the worst kind of person: the kind who thinks he’s a nice guy, but who in reality is truly heinous, a borderline sociopath. His wife Joan (Jessica Harper) isn’t interested in sex, and though you can’t blame her, she’s sadly portrayed as the stereotypical frigid shrew in what is probably the biggest misstep in the film. The couple have very little money and his dreams of success are quickly fading. He wishes for a life that simply cannot exist for him, in part because instead of trying for actual success, he is instead imagining the world around him turning into glamorous, glorious numbers from expensive Hollywood musicals. He meets local teacher Eileen (Peters) who shares his dreams, but their affair leads to a series of tragedies.
While in the miniseries the influences remained primarily cultural and based on pop radio tunes, the film relies heavily on scenarios from a host of 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Hollywood musicals. You’ll see references to 42nd Street, Singin’ in the Rain, The Horn Blows at Midnight, Sunnyside Up and more — and if Arthur isn’t at least partially based on an El Brendel character, I will purchase a delicious hat, and then I will eat it.
Lensed by the phenomenal Gordon Willis, who sadly passed away just yesterday, Pennies from Heaven is a glorious watch. Two snippets of scenes in the film made it into the now-famous TCM late-night movie intro, and for a reason: because it captures the 1930s Hollywood film aesthetic so well. Choreography by Danny Daniels and costumes by Bob Mackie lend authenticity and glamour to the film.
Martin and Peters are terrific when in their daydreams, though a touch heavy on the pathos during their real life moments, enough so that the film occasionally borders on fetishizing Depression-era poverty… but it’s not like Hollywood didn’t do that itself. Christopher Walken excels in a role that reminded us he was a solid song-and-dance man two decades before Fatboy Slim reminded us again. Vernel Bagneris, John Karlen and a host of fine supporting actors fill out the cast.
If you’ve seen the original BBC series, this film may be a bit of a letdown. It’s meant to be entertainment with a message, a comparable film to the cinematic extravaganzas of Old Hollywood, and thus at times comes across as a touch too light. But I can say without hyperbole that Pennies from Heaven is, if I had to choose, the one film that made me the cinephile and critic I am today, and I will never not love it.
Trivia time: Character actor Paul Valentine (far right), who played Joe Stepano in Out of the Past (1947), is one of the three singing bar patrons in the fabulous song-and-dance number featuring Christopher Walken.
The Warner Archive DVD is from the now out-of-print Warner Home Video version. Bringing back films like these is what Warner Archive does best; no longer will you have to pay some dude on eBay $50.00 for a used copy that strangers have probably sneezed on and/or licked. The Warner Archive DVD comes with scene selections, language options and special features including a scene-specific commentary by movie critic Peter Rainer and a 20-year reunion featurette with some of the cast and crew.
The slideshow photo for this post is a detail from artist Bob Peak’s painting used for the Pennies from Heaven poster, courtesy The Geeky Nerfherder.
Sadly, I still have not seen this movie…I think it’s because it was so far out of Martin’s wheelhouse (though I’m on record as not being a fan of The Jerk) like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid and my personal fave, The Man with Two Brains.
Would I be correct in guessing that the delicious hat would be topped with Hellmann’s? (I wish I had a better joke here, but I was saddened to hear about Willis’ passing so I’ve got nothing.)
I think you’d like it, honestly. It’s got a few incongruous moments and ultimately I think it would have played better had it been released 20 years later — think THE ARTIST — but it’s very good. So is the BBC mini series.
There is only one moment in THE JERK I really like. Well, two, if you count the gas station shooting scene, but basically when Martin gets good news early in the film and starts dancing around the room and disappears off screen right, then dances back into frame off into screen left. That kills me, I won’t lie.
Get that cat outta here!
THANK YOU SO MUCH for loving this film; it’s been so criminally maligned, ignored and otherwise spat upon over the years. The last MGM musical, and one of the greatest IMO. Steve Martin’s and Bernadette Peters’ finest hour as well. Obviously, I snapped up the old DVD when it was first released. My only quibble with the film, the blame for which can be laid at the feet of director Herbert Ross, is that an absolutely CRUCIAL scene was yanked by Ross for pacing reasons.
::MAJOR SPOILER ALERT::
In this scene, the accordion man kills himself in a flophouse over the guilt of murdering the blind girl. Without this scene, there is no satisfactory closure to the character.
I dearly hope this footage still exists and can be reinstated at some point, but because this film isn’t much cared about by anyone except a few, it’s most likely never gonna happen. We didn’t even get a Blu-ray. Or even the theatrical trailer, though the reunion footage and lone defender Peter Rainer’s commentary are most welcome. And I really detest it when the WB brings back out-of-print titles on DVD-R instead of pressed DVD, but I guess it’s better than nothing. The anamorphic transfer is not bad, far superior to the old VHS, but man, how dazzling this lovely film would look if it was properly restored in HD on Blu…yes, I do dream.
I would wonder if that footage even exists anymore, though it was made recently enough that the studio might very well still have all the materials in storage. I kind of like the cynicism of the accordion man never being seen again, because it implies he got away with it, though you do always wonder what became of him.
So far I’ve had no beef with the MOD DVDs (and many of them are traditionally pressed, at least for a limited time). They’ve all lasted just fine, without any issues or quality degradation. I bought some several years ago like ATLANTIS: THE LOST CONTINENT which are still solid. That said, I know quite a few people have issues with the quality, so I know there can be problems. So far, I’ve been lucky.
The Blus have been very good, too. I didn’t get OUT OF THE PAST but PERFORMANCE and POSSESSION were top notch. So hang in there, this may come out on Blu yet!
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