“Pennies from Heaven” (1981)

by A.J. Hakari

"Pennies from Heaven" poster

In the 1930s, distraction was the nation’s largest commodity. All those frothy vintage musicals that seem even lighter today were intended to take our collective minds off of the Great Depression, easing the pain of hard times with a little song and dance. But as with most things, escapism has a dark side, and it’s this reality that director Herbert Ross (Play It Again, Sam) aimed to explore in 1981’s Pennies from Heaven. Based on a BBC series by Dennis Potter, the movie contrasts ultra-splashy musical numbers with the bleakness from which audiences sought shelter. For a while, Pennies from Heaven is a fascinating study of two people who let their dreams get the best of them, but it’s not long before the film itself becomes overwhelmed with being a downer and loses sight of what it’s about.

Arthur (Steve Martin) wants to live where the songs come true. As a sheet music salesman, it’s hard not to become preoccupied with tunes that promise the sort of happiness that his meager earnings and frigid wife (Jessica Harper) haven’t given him. Arthur’s obsessive pursuits of greener pastures leads him to enter a brief fling with schoolteacher Eileen (Bernadette Peters) while on the road. Herself a bona fide dreamer who wants more out of life, Eileen falls into Arthur’s arms and almost instantly buys into his shallow charms. In their own minds, the pair imagines their fantasies coming true, playing out in full technicolor and with incredible choreography. But the real world continues to bear down on them, with Arthur’s wandering eye wrapping him up in a crime he didn’t commit and Eileen being forced to fend for herself when she loses her job.

I’m not sure if Pennies from Heaven‘s problems are deeply-rooted in the story itself or the result of a few cut corners too many. Potter was tasked with adapting his own six-part TV drama into less than two hours and reportedly had to rewrite his script thirteen times, so I really wouldn’t doubt if something important ended up being gutted. Pennies from Heaven has a strong beginning and a very grim finale, but it seems to be missing the proper journey to connect the two. Though it often feels as if it’s building up to some greater purpose, Ross never lets slip as to what it is, nor does he really know what to make of the fantasies in which his lead characters constantly indulge. The musical numbers (which feature the actors lip-synching to the original songs) are executed with an obvious sense of irony, but what criticisms they’re supposed to be registering are anyone’s guess. It’s as though the mere fact that their innocence is playing against such a dreary setting is supposed to be enough to engage viewers — which, considering the sub-par character insight that follows, it definitely isn’t.

Such narrative shortcomings are detrimental to Pennies from Heaven, which boasts the talent and the spending money of something that should be knocking our socks off. The production design is absolutely flawless, from Bob Mackie’s amazing costumes to the Busby Berkeley-style fantasy sequences. No matter what subversive implications they’re intended to carry, the numbers were put together with a certain amount of reverence to the golden age of movie musicals. Perhaps it’s that they look so smashing or that the actors are having such a blast cutting a rug that ultimately makes it hard to buy Pennies from Heaven as commentary on the consequences of watching too many Fred Astaire pictures. You just don’t learn enough about the characters for any valid points to emerge, with the cast caught in the crossfire and stuck working overtime with material that’s undermining them at every turn. As good as Martin and Peters are in their respective roles, you never come to view Arthur as the smooth-talking charmer he’s positioned as, just as one never understands why Eileen keeps falling back in with him, no matter how progressively streetwise she becomes during the film.

With its unconventional set-up, Pennies from Heaven really grips you out of the gate. It’s bold and different enough to make folks turn their heads, but despite the obvious care that went into making the movie look incredible, the story’s lack of a solid backbone causes that initial enthusiasm to wear off in a hurry. Though it can throw all the tap-dancing Christopher Walkens it wants at us, Pennies from Heaven holds about as much water as one of Arthur’s sales pitches.