Pennies from Heaven (1981)


Inspired by the romantic songs of the Great Depression, an unhappily married travelling music salesman (Steve Martin, The Man With Two Brains) dumps his aloof wife (Jessica Harper, Dario Argento’s Suspiria) for the love of a kindhearted school teacher (Bernadette Peters, John Huston’s Annie), with tragic consequences.

Reaction & Thoughts:

“I want to live in a world where the songs come true.”

Choreographer-filmmaker Herbert Ross (The Goodbye Girl and Footloose) pulled out all the stops to bring Dennis Potter’s six-part limited TV series of the same name to the big screen. Pennies from Heaven isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s nearly impossible not to be enthralled by the sheer ambition and audacity of Ross’s vision.

Pennies from Heaven is one of the most complex movie musicals I’ve ever seen, both thematically and technically. The film examines the perennial connection between human sorrow and escapism. It correctly states that during the Great Depression, Americans embraced the fantasy world of songs and movies to escape their bleak reality.

The film deepens the connection between unhappiness and fluffy entertainment by mixing highly stylized musical numbers with straight dramatic moments. It is that paradoxical relationship between Hollywood’s cheerful fictional world and the social and economic despair of the ’30s that makes the film fascinating to watch.

Granted, this isn’t the only musical that combines music with serious drama (e.g., West Side Story, Cabaret, All That Jazz, etc.), but Pennies from Heaven is almost unbearably bleak at times. Infidelity, abortion, prostitution, bankruptcy, murder, etc., it’s a nonstop parade of pain and sadness. But the movie is as gorgeous as it is ugly.

The camerawork by Gordon Willis (The Godfather and All the President’s Men) is fantastic. Willis handles the shifts of tone masterfully: one scene is bright and perky, the next scene is dark and gloomy. They are some stunning recreations of paintings by Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper. The eye-popping art deco sets are pretty incredible. And the Busby Berkley-like surreal musical numbers are sensational.

As I said before, Pennies from Heaven does have a few flaws. Actors lip-sync popular ’20s and ’30s melodies, and I thought that was a mistake. I would have preferred to see the actors give their own spin to the well-known songs. In the case of Bernadette Peters, who is an accomplished singer, it’s almost a crime not to let her use her own singing voice (Peters does us her own voice, briefly, near the end of the movie).

By the way, I didn’t like Steve Martin here. Martin’s SLN vibe is at odds with the naturalistic performances of Peters and Jessica Harper, who is excellent as Martin’s wife. On the other hand, Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter) is extraordinary as a heartless gangster. When Walken jumps on a pool table and starts dancing, the movie goes from great to sublime. Frankly, I was shocked! I was so taken aback by Walken’s superb dance routine that I had to replay the sequence multiple times.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Pennies from Heaven bombed at the box office, and it isn’t difficult to see why that happened. It must have been hard for regular viewers to enjoy a movie that shifts tone from scene to scene: one moment you want to get up and dance, and the next moment you want to slice your wrists. It’s definitely a challenging, but richly rewarding experience. A must-see for fans of musicals. Color, 108 minutes, Rated R.

Original Theatrical Trailer:

8 responses to “Pennies from Heaven (1981)

  1. I so agree with all you say! Too many strange shifts in tone. But it’s one of my favorites to this day–particularly because of Christopher Walken. When he was in a remake of Peter Pan several years ago, I was so sad to see him doing a little bit of tap dancing… then huffing heavily… and sitting down on the set! It’s funny that his dancing in Pennies stunned you. I think I was aware that he had been a dancer first, before anything else….. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love Walken, but don’t know anything about him. I certainly didn’t know he could dance. I didn’t see the Peter Pan show, but I imagine it must be hard to do that kind of (live show) at his age.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I actually love this film and yes Christopher Walken was fantastic in it – did you see that FatBoy Slim music video Weapon of Choice – he is just amazing in that 🙂 As for Pennies from Heaven, I do rank Dennis Pottter’s 1978 miniseries higher (Bob Hoskins played the Steve Martin role in that one) Anyway, great to see you here 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I have seen bits and pieces of the 1978 TV show, and I thought Hoskins was infinitely better than Martin. Hoskins played the role as a charming heel, while Martin came across as a creepy jerk.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post 🙂 I love both Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC miniseries and this 1981 American version, though I would rank the former higher of course 🙂 Speaking of Dennis Potter, have you ever watched his 1986 magnum opus The Singing Detective with Michael Gambon? Amazing stuff and Potter was just a genius 🙂 A shame that he is no longer living 😦 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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