In the wake of Heaven’s Gate (1980), the $38 million dollar epic by director Michael Cimino that become one of the most expensive box office disasters in movie history, every studio in Hollywood began to carefully monitor their production costs. This was especially true at MGM, which had recently acquired United Artists, the producer and distributor of Heaven’s Gate. You would think in this financially conservative new climate, created by near-bankruptcy conditions, MGM would have steered clear of producing a risky commercial venture like Pennies From Heaven (1981), based on the critically acclaimed six-part British TV mini-series by Dennis Potter. Yet, despite the odds, the studio took a chance on this dark and disturbing tale of a traveling sheet music salesman who escapes the daily drudgeries of his job and miserable married life through fantastic daydreams set to popular songs.
In some ways, Pennies From Heaven was any even riskier project than Heaven’s Gate. Despite a grim storyline involving adultery, prostitution, homelessness and murder, the film was technically a musical, a genre that hadn’t performed well with moviegoers since the late sixties. The elaborately designed and staged musical numbers in the film, representing the emotional states of the various characters, were also a gamble (the actors didn’t use their own singing voices; instead they lip synch the lyrics).
Even more unconventional was the choice of songs. Pennies From Heaven featured musical selections which were far removed from the contemporary pop mainstream. Since the film was set during the Great Depression, the soundtrack was brimming over with tunes from that era such as “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking” (by Bing Crosby), “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (by Fred Astaire), and “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You” by Ida Sue McCune.
Probably the biggest risk of all was casting comedian Steve Martin in the lead role of the hapless salesman, Arthur Parker. Martin’s goofy comic persona was well established at this point from his TV appearances and his previous box office hit, The Jerk (1979), but Pennies was NOT a comedy. Arthur Parker was a serious dramatic part that also required an actor who was an expert dancer, talents Martin had yet to reveal.
Nora Kaye, the producer of Pennies From Heaven and the wife of its director, Herbert Ross, was convinced Martin was perfect for the lead. In a Los Angeles magazine article by Stephen Farber, Kaye remarked, “If you just had a terrific actor, the musical numbers wouldn’t come off. Steve knows how to put across the number. He’s right for the part in another sense, too. In the ’30s all the leading men were classic American types. But today, there are very few stars who are not ethnic – either Italian or Jewish. You kind of feel Steve is a Baptist, and that’s what this story needs. He’s so guileless, like a Capra hero.”
Kaye first saw the BBC version of Pennies from Heaven starring Bob Hoskins in England when she was casting for her husband’s 1980 film, Nijinsky and brought it to Ross’s attention. Together they convinced writer Dennis Potter to adapt his original scenario to an American setting (Chicago instead of London). After MGM green-lighted the project at a budget of $15 million, Oscar-winning set designer Ken Adam (Barry Lyndon, 1975) was recruited along with cinematographer Gordon Willis (The Godfather, 1972) and other musically gifted cast members like Bernadette Peters (Martin’s girlfriend at the time and former Broadway veteran), Christopher Walken (whose singing/dancing background included a stint as “Riff” in a touring version of West Side Story) and Vernel Bagneris, the writer, director and star of the stage musical One Mo’ Time, who performs a show-stopping version of the title song by Arthur Tracy in the film.
Adam’s production design, in particular, places the film in a realm of its own, combining Art Deco styles with Busby Berkeley-like sets and a sense of “heightened realism.” During an interview, Adam stated, “Herb [Ross] was very much influenced by the paintings of Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh and the photographs of Walker Evans. So I incorporated those into my designs. When I’m doing a period film, I like to do my research first, then put away all the paintings and photographs and refer to them as little as possible. I want the research to inspire me, but I don’t want them to become rigid.”
During the filming, Steve Martin “was so absorbed in his role that he refused to talk to the press while production was going on,” wrote Stephen Farber in an aforementioned magazine article. “Between takes he stood off by himself, practicing his dance steps in front of a mirror. Occasionally his wild-and-crazy humor surfaced: When a crewmember sprayed the bottoms of his spats before a take, Martin went into a spastic laughing-gas fit, as if he’d been drugged. But on camera he seemed to be approaching the part with deadly earnest intensity. Whether he will be able to bring off this radical change in his image remains to be seen.”
Unfortunately, Steve Martin alone was not enough to attract moviegoers or even his hard-core fans to Pennies From Heaven who seemed to instinctively know in advance that this movie was not for them. It’s a shame because the film is often an astonishing visual wonder that expertly toes the line between heartbreaking tragedy and exhilarating flights of fancy. The musical numbers are truly inspired and full of surprises – Martin lip-syncing to Connie Boswell’s rendition of “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again,” Christopher Walken’s lewd, dynamic dance number set in a sleazy bar to the tune of “Let’s Misbehave.”
Martin turns in an impressive performance as the hapless, self-deluded protagonist and it would lead to other straight dramatic roles for the comedian such as the arrogant movie producer in Grand Canyon (1991), an older suitor of Claire Danes in Shopgirl (2005), and most impressive of all, his sinister stranger in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997). In addition, Bernadette Peters is poignant and appealing as the unfortunate Eileen and brings a convincing little-girl-lost quality to the role.
Most surprising of all is Jessica Harper as Martin’s unhappy, puritanical wife and one of the most polarizing characters the actress has ever played. Harper had a remarkable run in movies from 1974 through 1982, appearing in such offbeat cult films as Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), and Shock Treatment (1981) but also two Woody Allen comedies (Love and Death, Stardust Memories) and the Peter O’Toole farce, My Favorite Year (1982). Quite a unique resume for anyone.
Last but not least is director Herbert Ross who probably seemed like the least likely choice to helm Pennies from Heaven. He is much more famous for mainstream commercial hits like The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), The Turning Point (1977), The Goodbye Girl (1977), Footloose (1984) and Steel Magnolias (1989). Nevertheless, Ross has occasionally championed more offbeat projects like the highly underrated mystery thriller The Last of Sheila (1973) and the 1980 biopic Nijinsky with ballet dancer George De La Pena in the title role.
Despite Pennies from Heaven’s obvious artistic merits and genuine audacity, critics and reviewers were equally mixed in their reviews. Some absolutely hated it and were possibly already prejudiced against it after hearing reports of its runaway budget, which ballooned from $15 to $22 million, only earning back $3 million in receipts. There were a few enthusiastic champions of Pennies from Heaven. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote that the film “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…there was never a second when I wasn’t fascinated by what was happening on the screen.” Equally enamored was Gary Arnold of The Washington Post who called it “a rejuvenating, landmark achievement in the evolution of Hollywood musicals, and certainly the finest American movie of 1981.”
The major feedback, however, was negative and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times pinpointed the central complaint in his review: “It is the structure of “Pennies from Heaven” that works most fatally against the film. A few key scenes contrasting grim reality and movie escapism would have made the point, but two hours of contrast simply destroy our ability to get into the movie and enjoy it. The movie constantly shatters its own reality…”
Still, Pennies from Heaven managed to score three Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Costume Design, and it certainly helped launch Dennis Potter’s career as a screenwriter; he would go on to do the screenplays for Brimstone and Treacle (1982) starring Sting, Gorky Park (1983) and Track 29 (1988), among others, before his death from cancer in 1994.
The Hollywood flirtation with Potter would continue even after the disappointing reception of Pennies from Heaven. In fact, Potter’s other acclaimed BBC mini-series, The Singing Detective, was also adapted for the screen from a screenplay by Potter in 2003 with Robert Downey, Jr. in the lead role (Michael Gambon was the star of the original mini-series). Despite an impressive cast that included Robin Wright, Mel Gibson, Katie Holmes, Jeremy Northam, Alfre Woodard, Adrien Brody and others, the big screen version of The Singing Detective, directed by Keith Gordon, was also a box office failure and most critics were not kind in their reviews.
The original mini-series clocked in at seven hours whereas the film version was only one hour and forty-nine minutes in length so that might have contributed to a more problematic structure and story arc. At any rate, I am a great admirer of the BBC productions of The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven but I continue to recommend the Steve Martin version of Pennies from Heaven to movie lovers who want to see a darker, more emotionally extreme approach to the movie musical genre.
Pennies from Heaven was first released on DVD by Warner Bros. in July 2004. That version is now out of print but The Warner Archives Collection re-released the film on DVD in March 2016 and retained the original extra features from the first release. The film has yet to appear on Blu-ray and certainly deserves a major upgrade at this point.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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