Sunday Editor’s Pick: “Pennies From Heaven” (1981)

by on June 25, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick, Uncategorized

Playing Sun June 26 at 8:30 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


The 70s musicals continue through this weekend at Anthology. A belated link to series programmer Leah Churner’s article, which asks,”What Happened to the Hollywood Musical?” over at Moving Image Source. Churner discusses the critical whiplash many of these attempts suffered, and today’s pick is no exception.


“I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They didn’t realize that the ’30s were a very innocent age, and that it should have been set in the eighties – it was just froth; it makes you cry it’s so distasteful,” Nathan Rabin quotes Fred Astaire’s horror over the 1981 American adaptation of the popular BBC mini-series in his column “My Year of Flops” for the Onion AV Club.


But Rabin’s got a counter or two:

Heaven bravely cast Steve Martin in his first dramatic role. Even more audaciously, it cast him as largely unsympathetic character. We Americans treasure our delusions. There’s something downright un-American about the notion that you can doggedly pursue your dreams, follow your heart, believe deeply and truly in the transformative powers of music and love, and still end up in a hangman’s noose for a crime you didn’t commit. And we like our dreamers pure-hearted and true, not sleazy, sordid, and ruled by sex and greed like Martin’s sad little schemer.


In a revelatory lead performance, Martin here plays a sheet-music salesman trapped in a loveless marriage with sour-faced scold Jessica Harper, a glowering, bible-thumping puritan who probably views even eyes-closed missionary sex between married adults as a shameful perversion punishable by an eternity of hellfire. To escape a barren home life and a career sputtering head-long into Nowheresville, Martin frequently breaks into giddy, kinetic fantasy sequences where he lip-synchs to Tin Pan Alley ditties and cavorts his way through production numbers worthy of MGM’s legendary Freed Unit.



Time Out (London):

Dennis Potter’s remarkably intelligent transatlantic adaptation of his BBC serial turns the pitfalls of ‘Hollywoodisation’ into profit, now stressing the ‘pennies’ over the ‘heavenly’ symbolism by specifically locating Arthur Parker’s grubby melodrama in the Chicago of the Depression, and culling his liberating daydreams from not only the era’s popular music, but its even more culturally resonant musicals, recreated with both MGM opulence and biting Brechtian wit. Parker’s search for sexual and spiritual silver linings takes him (Martin) through the dark worlds of Edward Hopper and Walker Evans, as he and fallen angel Bernadette Peters become true nighthawks whose epiphanies are those of the glitzy sound-stage production number, and who re-problematise every earnest thesis on the evils of escapism by confronting economic and emotional recession with Holmlywood’s eternal currency. Let’s face the music and dance, indeed.


Pauline Kael for one also quite liked it:

Pennies from Heaven is the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen. It’s a stylized mythology of the Depression which uses the popular songs of the period as expressions of people’s deepest longings—for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time. When the characters can’t say how they feel, they evoke the songs: they open their mouths, and the voices on hit records come out of them. And as they lip-sync the lyrics, their obsessed eyes are burning bright. Their souls are in those voices, and they see themselves dancing just like the stars in movie musicals.


The lip-syncing idea works wonderfully; it’s in the dialogue interludes that the movie gets off on the wrong foot. Most of these scenes need to be played faster—to be snappier and more hyperbolic, with little curlicues of irony in the performances ot point things up…. Yet the scenes in themselves—even those that are awkwardly paced and almost static—still have a rapt, gripping quality. And even when a scene cries out for a spin, a futher twist of artifice, the actors carry the day. Bernadette Peters has ironic curlicues built in, and her exaggerated Queens diction (which is certainly eccentric for an Illinois girl) gives her her own cheeping-chicky sound.


Despite its use of Brechtian devices, Pennies from Heaven doesn’t allow you to distance yourself. You’re thrust into the characters’ emotional extremes; you’re right in front of the light that’s shining from their eyes. And you see the hell they go through for sex and money….There’s something new going on—something thrilling—when the characters in a musical are archetypes yet are intensely alive.



Nick Pinkerton for Reverse Shot:

When the sad spectacle of Richard Gere pretending to dance is widely acknowledged as the contemporary musical’s artistic high watermark, it can get awfully hard to remember that these silly movies, with their odd, unexpected hiccups of song, can have an unequalled capacity to astonish. Thankfully a much-needed testament to that ability remains in the three musical miniseries created by BBC scribe Dennis Potter.  These serial song-cycles work around a Brechtian concept of the author’s own invention, a device so affecting and simple one wonders how it took so long to discover; was it there all along, lurking just beneath the surface of the genre’s base conceits? His characters abruptly break away from their ostensible reality, but where we anticipate the same old song-and-dance, they embellish their deceit, opening up and obviously lip-synching to vintage recordings. Viewed now these moments still astonish, but what must they have been to see in a time before Cop Rock? Through these works Potter drafted his sprawling overview of how popular culture generally and music specifically related to the individual and national life of England during the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties.


In 1981 MGM produced its own Pennies, a lavish refitting of Potter’s ideas to the opulent dressings of the Hollywood musical, based on the author’s own script. The result was a potent concentration of the original six-part, eight-hour BBC I production, a work that illustrates how the whole world can be fit into genre confines…Looking at the middlebrow L.A. everydad that the two decades past have eroded Martin’s persona into, it’s hard to believe the commitment with which he plays some of Potter’s tough, ambivalent scenes. When Arthur accosts a blind girl walking alone in an empty railyard, Martin hangs just the right potential for sexual aggression over his line readings before, amazingly, dissipating everything with the sweet boyish conviction of his parting announcement that, “I’ll never forget this—not ever.” First watching Pennies as a teenager, I was penetrated to the core by what Martin’s Arthur communicated, by this difficult character who agonized over “when you think about things before you go to sleep at night,” full of blustery bullshit romanticism, his hapless horniness, his clapboard castles in the sky. It was, for better or for worse, the experience of seeing myself on the screen, and there lies whatever genius Pennies from Heaven has. It smuggles a core of identifiable pain and ecstasy in glittery MGM trappings, but with a result that never denigrates the medium or the message, and illustrates just how much of us is invested in these cheap songs, so-called. Finally it suggests that if pop did not exist, we would have to invent it.


Although all one really needs is the Christopher Walken sequence to convince them of this movie’s merit:



Rabin again:

There’s something disconcerting and strained about plastic smiles and speed-fueled peppiness of dancers in old musicals, a forced bonhomie that’s borderline creepy. Pennies brilliantly exploits that blatantly artificial pep in queasy, disquieting ways. There’s similarly something haunting and weird about the pop and crackle of ancient recordings where dead voices gather to obliviously espouse long-forgotten hopes and dreams. There’s a reason creepy old records playing at unexpected intervals are a horror-film staple.


Pennies plays up the impossible gulf between the shimmering fantasy worlds created by Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and the Freed unit, and the sobering realities of life among the suffering lower classes for maximum heartbreak. Late in the film, Martin blurs that line completely by first singing along with Astaire’s celluloid image in a movie theater, then leaping boldly into the frame with Peters. Astaire must have felt honored. I love musicals, but I also love Heaven’s merciless deconstruction of the genre. It gets under my skin and haunts my psyche anew with each viewing.


And we’ll let Steve Martin have the last word:

“I must say that the people who get the movie, in general, have been wise and intelligent; the people who don’t get it are ignorant scum.”


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