Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Review: Pennies From Heaven (1981)

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 is married to the frigid and prudish Joan (Valerie Harper), whose parents left her a modest nest egg. Arthur wants to use the money to open his own music store. Frustrated with her refusal and lack of faith, he leaves for several days of music sales, during which time he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a shy young school teacher.

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.

Unbeknownst to Arthur, the damage is done; the quiet and shy school teacher is pregnant with Arthur’s baby. Forced to leave her teaching job, she comes to Chicago in search of Arthur, only to discover the address he gave her is bogus. With nowhere to turn, she falls in with Tom (Christopher Walken), whose bar-top dance performance is the centerpiece of the musical numbers. Legend has it both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly visited the set during filming of this particular sequence and were favorably impressed.

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.

On the run, they find themselves in a movie theater, again in a shot straight out of an Edward Hopper painting (New York Movie; Google it). On the screen before them, amidst allusions to prison bars and executions, they see their final fate played out through the classic “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sequence from the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic, Follow the Fleet (1936).

For fans of classic Hollywood musicals, Pennies From Heaven is a pleasant tribute, but despite the music, it’s not what I could call a “feel-good” movie. A happy ending seems impossible; nevertheless it’s given one through the magic of Hollywood.

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.

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Mark said...

My mom adored this movie, so I suffered through it many times on her behalf. For my part, I always found it creepy, disconcerting, and oddly, a product of its era (the early 80s, I mean.) Particularly the thread between Martin, Harper, and lipstick. Wishing there was little less plot summary in the piece, nicely written though!

Paul D. Brazill said...

I loved the TV series which was nasty piece of work. Dennis Potter was a brilliant misenthrope. I'm assuming that it was 'cleaned up' for the Hollywod version.

Stacia said...

Love the movie and, at the behest of someone on Usenet a couple years ago, finally got around to seeing the UK series last week. It's brilliant, absolutely fantastic. A lot of people really hate both versions of "Pennies," which is a shame. I think it's problematic for a lot of people who want nostalgia and think the era has been perverted for cynical, useless reasons.

The movie is gorgeous but it's too short to really go into the characters the way the series did. In the series, the characters have more humanity, people who know the right answers but keep doing the wrong things. They limit their choices in the life for reasons we the audience never quite understand. Joan is less shrewish and more mixed up and confused in the series than in the film; Arthur is full of pathos in the Steve Martin version but more dim and pathetic in the Bob Hoskins version.

They are both cynical, adult fare, not for those who want to relax with some nostalgia, and the series is not for those who freak out at frontal nudity or crude humor. In a world full of fluffy songs and shallow movies, I love having "Pennies from Heaven".