“Let’s face the music and dance,” as Fred once sang to Ginger. Sooner or later you need to, even if things don’t always work out so well in the real world when you try. Long ago when Quentin Tarantino appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss PULP FICTION (the interview can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray--it’s a good one) he brought up the concept of the evolution of director’s careers, specifically during the period of the 70s through the 80s, examining where certain directors seemed to pivot away from the interesting stuff—often, Tarantino says, there would be one big film from a director which would be then dismissed if not the biggest flop of their careers, after which they would begin to repeat themselves or just do star vehicles. Tarantino declined to mention anyone specifically, only saying he had a few in mind, but I’ve always felt he was onto something interesting about tracking certain careers that doesn’t get discussed very much and while I have no idea who he was actually thinking of one who has always come to mind for me in terms of this, probably not the most expected name, was Herbert Ross. With a background that began on the stage, particularly working as a choreographer, Ross has a genuinely interesting run of films in the 70s with titles like THE LAST OF SHEILA
and THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION along with acclaimed hits like THE TURNING POINT, THE GOODBYE GIRL (which were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in the same year) and CALIFORNIA SUITE
. His ambitious, expensive adaptation of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN came in 1981 after which there were more Neil Simon adaptations (I OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES followed in theaters a mere three months later), a huge hit in FOOTLOOSE as well as a number of, well, star vehicles like the very 80s THE SECRET OF MY SUCCESS and MY BLUE HEAVEN which reunited Ross with PENNIES star Steve Martin.
So I wonder if PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was the sort of artistic summation Tarantino might have been thinking of. It’s just a theory, that Ross in assembling the material from Dennis Potter adapting his own teleplay, along with bringing in genuinely brilliant technical craftsman like director of photography Gordon Willis and production designer Ken Adam as well as a star in Steve Martin who at that point was looking to try something different was able to achieve more than he ever had in a film, to put up on the screen everything about the medium that he wanted to express. And what happened, happened. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN was a commercial disaster when released in December 1981 (that’s one hell of a Christmas gift from MGM) but it did receive considerable acclaim from some circles including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay as well as a win at the Golden Globes for star Bernadette Peters. Plus Pauline Kael, in one of those rapturous reviews that she occasionally turned out, declared it “The most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen.” It also wouldn’t be a bad guess to make that Lars Von Trier has probably seen it a few times. On a historical level, you could even point out that the film is for all intents and purposes the last MGM musical that was ever filmed on that famous lot even if some people might take issue with the term ‘musical’ here. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN isn’t an easy film. I’m ok with that. Some of it is also transcendent in a way that few films ever even attempt, let alone achieve.
In 1934 Chicago, smack during the middle of the Depression, sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is unhappy in his life and in his marriage to equally unhappy wife Joan (Jessica Harper). The only respite he has from his daily life and unsuccessful business is his frequent journeys into his own dreamworld where he fantasizes a world where the songs he peddles come true just like they do in Hollywood musicals. He thinks things might change when he meets schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) although while she lets him take advantage he doesn’t tell her the truth about his marriage. But as bad as things soon get for Eileen who finds herself in her own predicament and unable to find Arthur, an unfortunate twist of fate is about to make things much, much worse for him and even the songs in his head are unable to do anything about it.
Considering they both come from the same late 70s-early 80s filmic period (although actually released four and a half years apart) on the surface PENNIES FROM HEAVEN seems somewhat of a piece with Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK in terms of how they’re both over-stylized look at a clash of the film world and real world, between dreams and reality, between what we wish would be and how it’s going to turn out no matter what. As I’ve written about before NEW YORK, NEW YORK
, fascinating as it is, kind of makes me want to jump out the nearest window whereas PENNIES FROM HEAVEN hits something deep down, more than I want to confront, more than I want to admit. Even after many viewings I’m still taken aback by how nasty certain moments in its real-world half are, how utterly despondent and vulgar. But they have to be there. The conceit, for anyone who doesn’t know, is that all of the ‘musical numbers’ actually and intentionally consist of lip-synched performances of vintage recordings in fantasy sequences which is what makes it partly a musical and partly not. But what the hell, let’s call it a musical, just about the most blissful musical imaginable, and looking at a few of the numbers on Youtube by themselves always provides a momentary hit of joy but when properly framed against what surrounds them makes that joy presented in them all the more palpable. Why can’t life be that simple, that glorious? Whoever said you could stop a dream? Aside from the whole world, that is, and it’s the world that PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is set in.
Taking on this film so soon after his run as the most successful stand-up comedian around as well as the smash hit of THE JERK two years earlier was about as brave as it could have gotten for Steve Martin and while there have been comic actors in the years since who have made similar stretches I can’t think of another example where it came so soon and attempted to move so far from where that person previously had been. Coupled with how jarring the film intentionally is, how utterly despairing the story being told really is deep down, is how the star is playing a role not only miles away from what he was famous for at the time but also someone who is, much as he talks about wanting to live in a place where the songs come true and are real, a total shit. Not at all the nice, kind and gentle person Eileen thinks he is, just a cowardly shit with a secret desire of where he wants his wife to put some lipstick on, who can’t comprehend a life that might have to come after those songs. How far the movie takes this is just about the most surprising thing about it now. But there’s a palpable desperation in Martin’s voice as Arthur that I recognize, what he’s dreaming of seems more eerily familiar to me than I want to admit. Both utterly joyous and beyond sorrowful at once, it’s a near miraculous piece of work as a film.
Part of that miracle has to be every single one of those musical numbers beginning with the simplicity of the first yearning moment as he ‘sings’ to his wife in the bathroom as she brushes her teeth to the exhilaration of the bank scene, Eileen's schoolhouse fantasy to the tune of “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You”, Christopher Walken coming out of nowhere for his one scene performance of “Let’s Misbehave”, Martin and Peters taking the place of Astaire and Rogers in a recreation of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from FOLLOW THE FLEET and maybe most memorably of all, the absolutely otherworldly dance performed by Vernel Bagneris as the Accordion Man during the title song. Every single one of the musical numbers cuts deep more than expected, the film clearly wanting to believe what’s in the musical numbers and the dreams of happiness, joy, laughter, wealth, as much as Arthur wants to, but it knows that it can’t and at times the songs don’t seem to end as much as either drifting off into the mind of the person imagining it or otherwise rudely interrupted by reality. The entire production has such an otherworldly aura somehow placed onto its celluloid it seems unreal that this was ever really accomplished and along with Ross’s direction the look provided by Gordon Willis could make him the auteur of the project as much as anyone, pitting the two worlds against each other—the GODFATHER-like shadows seen in the darkness framed against the unspeakable beauty of the musical numbers. In addition, the recreation of Edward Hopper paintings and Walker Evans photography being an integral part of the overall design which combined only adds to the heightened reality of a world that we may never come close to achieving.
As harsh as the story surrounding those musical numbers can be, almost brutally harsh, the moments of grace in the real world scenes make a mark, the moment of silence on the street with Arthur and the Accordion Man, John McMartin’s outwardly stern principal quietly remembering when he taught in Eileen’s classroom years before, all deliberately thrown against scenes where characters are not connecting with each other for different reasons, the ability of human connection rarely ever able to be as ideal as they are in those songs. Even with those beats of unbearable emotion, the 108 minutes of PENNIES FROM HEAVEN feels almost surprisingly tight with editor Richard Marks keeps the pacing impeccable—during a 20th Anniversary panel at the Motion Picture Academy back in 2001 (an edited version of which can be found on the DVD) several deleted scenes were mentioned including a final scene for Bagneris’ character and, more surprising, what was described as a scene showing the full murder of someone who in the final film is only found dead later on. I can recall Steve Martin commenting that ‘you can feel the movie running out of money’ at a certain point, possibly referring to how the same location is oddly used multiple times. Or maybe he was referring to how the ending feels like it’s missing a beat, a reminder of just how much of a fantasy it is, beyond just showing us that fantasy. These are minor points. And yet when one character calls after another near the very end, the sound echoing as if to accentuate the fakery of the scene simply being shot on a soundstage, the effect is about as haunting as I could possibly imagine.
I’m also reminded about how the character of Arthur is pretty much a prick who can’t give someone a quarter without being an ass about it, even as he’s looking for his own form of grace. When he calls out a declaration to a blind girl he meets played by Eliska Krupka he means it with all his heart, as clumsily melodramatic as the words sound. Late in the film he breaks down as if pleading for mercy declaring, “I’ve always known something terrible was going to happen to me.” I don’t even want to say what I think when I hear that line, only that it reminds me of how the recurring use of the song “Somewhere the Sun is Shining” causes it to sound like the inevitability of fate, a reminder that as much as you want it there’s nothing turning back from the road you’re on. I’ve disappeared into my own dreams more than a few times as well. I’m not sure if PENNIES is the single most emotional musical I’ve ever seen, to borrow the line from Kael, but it seems to understand the unreachable gap between the two halves like few others ever made. It’s not just emotional, it’s soulful. It’s gorgeous. It’s despairing. It’s haunting. It’s not a film I want to live without. If anything, I’m just worried that it’s only going to get sadder as time goes on, as I keep on returning to it in search of that joy.
On initial viewings years ago Steve Martin seemed not quite right to me as if as an actor wasn’t up to the challenges of this part just yet (certainly following up THE JERK with this was commercial madness; now, it doesn’t matter). But looking at it now he seems perfect, every ounce of bitterness feeling truly genuine as those songs play in his head, every piece of bullshit that Arthur slings in wooing Eileen showing off just how much he’s trying to keep the truth from slipping out. Plus his innate sense of timing serves him perfectly when he dances. Bernadette Peters is astonishing, going right from her timidity when she first appears before Arthur in a music store to when she gives that one final ‘yes’ to Christopher Walken to make it clear she understands him and through all that makes it clear how much stronger she is than Arthur as well. Good as the two leads are, it’s very possible that Jessica Harper does the strongest work here, playing a character who is nowhere close to the vision of wonder of something like PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE
but someone who the anger and fear that clearly lies within her is absolutely palpable. Either written as shrewish or just perceived that way through how Arthur sees her (which makes me think of how astonishing it is to just look at Jessica Harper’s eyes at certain points), she’s never comes off as friendly at all yet there’s clearly a human being under there, one who’s hurting as much as anyone. It’s just been smothered by life and a husband who she may know better than he wishes but she still has no idea how to communicate with. Christopher Walken is a total powerhouse in his one scene as the pimp encountered by Eileen, Vernel Bagneris is truly haunting as The Accordion Man, while among the many actors who make an impression even in small roles John Karlen is particularly effective as the twitchy police detective who questions Joan about Arthur and as the blind girl Eliska Krupka (per imdb only one other screen credit, in 1988’s DANCE ACADEMY) is beyond ethereal. When he meets her Arthur’s reaction makes sense. I’m pretty sure I’ve wanted to say what he says to girls I’ve never seen again. Some of them haunt me in the dead of night the way this film does.
Oh yes, it all originated as a miniseries, didn’t it? It aired in 1978 on the BBC and starred Bob Hoskins. Feel free to put it on my tombstone, ‘He never saw the original production of Pennies From Heaven’. All right, maybe that’s a little harsh since I’m sure the original is pretty great—I can imagine it has considerably more breathing room with the plot allowing it co clarify certain details that feel a little rushed over—but I’ve reached the point of being fed up with people who, whenever the film version is mentioned no matter what the context, have to pipe in with declaring that the only real Pennies From Heaven is the original and anyone who says otherwise is a philistine. It’s like arguing with the people who insist that Tony Soprano died when that final episode went to black. Actually, it’s worse. I’m done engaging with those people, on Facebook or otherwise. The PENNIES FROM HEAVEN that I’ve always known flopped but it exists now and it certainly has enough admirers to allow for that packed house at the Academy to celebrate its 20th anniversary back in 2001. During the discussion that followed the screening one of panelists onstage mentioned that it was possibly the greatest screening the film ever had. Having been there and seen how well the audience responded to it, I can believe that. It was glorious. The audience loved it. It’s a sort of joy that films rarely have, the kind that understand you can only really appreciate that joy when things are at their absolute worst. And it’s the sort of film that knows both feelings often remain with you forever.
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