By Philip Schweier
“Steve Martin, in a decidedly different role…”
So says the voice over of the trailer for Pennies From Heaven (1981), as the star of our feature comes stumbling into the room, whooping it up with his pants around his ankles as he holds his shirt-tails out in front of him.
Naturally, it was expected that the folks who put the trailer together were being facetious, but the truth is, they weren’t. It was one of those films in which the star, usually known for being a wild and crazy guy, opts for a more serious role. The film is adapted from a British series of the same name.
While the basic story of the film is nothing spectacular, it serves as the framework for the actual gimmick of the film, as the characters experience moments of fantasy, lyp-syncing and performing musical numbers from 1930s-era musicals, sometimes with all the glitz and glamour of Busby Berkeley.
Set in the early 1930s Chicago, at the height of the Great Depression, Martin plays Arthur, a frustrated sheet music salesman with a dead territory (“South-central Illinois. God help me.”). But like many a salesman, he is full of himself and, thanks to the songs he sells, equally full of dreams.
Arthur’s idealized image of Eileen represents the fantasy world conveyed in the songs he sells, which is conveyed as he lip-syncs Bing Crosby’s “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”
In addition to the music of the 1930s, the film also takes advantage by borrowing imagery from various paintings, most notably a handful by Edward Hopper. In one such moment, Arthur locates Eileen at her family’s farm and the two begin a troubled romance.
During the course of his sales trip, Arthur encounters a young blind girl (Eliska Krupka), who is later found murdered. Arthur takes it as a sign, and with the fear of God in him, he returns to his wife. “I have to be good,” he tells Joan in a moment of shame and remorse, and he abandons Eileen.
Meanwhile, Joan has given Arthur the money to open his own store, but the business rapidly begins to fail. Adding to his troubles, the police (led by John Karlen) have Arthur under suspicion for the murder of the blind girl. Connecting the dots surrounding that fateful night, loving wife Joan is only too happy to roll over on her scoundrel of a husband. “Cut his thing off!” he urges the police.
Following an abortion, Eileen has fallen into a life of prostitution and is discovered one night by Arthur. They decide to run away together; from Joan, from the police and from all of life in general. All of the songs that Arthur once sold have no meaning, and all the romance and love they once espoused no longer exists for them.
Follow the Fleet (1936).
I don’t think it’s a movie I would pay to have on home video. I taped it off public television, and have it on a cassette with the films Brazil (1985) and Kafka (1991). Why those three films together? It’s a unifying theme. All three feature lead characters in hum-drum lives, who use flights of fantasy as a means of escape, which only leads to their ultimate doom.