The first to “escape” from my DVD collection is “Pennies from Heaven,” (1981). Directed by Herbert Ross, this is a musical set in 1934 Chicago, but it's not a 1930s musical.
What I mean is, while it has the sets, choreography and songs of a Busby Berkeley or Fred Astaire musical, it doesn't have the attitude of a 1930s musical — so much so when Astaire saw “Pennies from Heaven” he reportedly hated it.
Musicals were an escape, for the audience, from the hardships of the Great Depression, but they weren't an escape for the characters in the musicals.
Characters in musicals lived lavish, fun lives. The musical numbers an exclamation point on all the frivolity. The audiences needed these movies as a respite from the harsh existence outside the movie theater.
The characters in “Pennies from Heaven” step out of their dead-end lives and are allowed to imaging themselves into a glorious existence.
“Pennies from Heaven,” based on a 1975 BBC series written by Dennis Potter, is about Arthur (Steve Martin) and struggling sheet music salesman, whose in a frustratingly loveless marriage with Joan (Jessica Harper). Arthur leaves his humdrum life by singing the songs he sells.
Arthur meets, seduces and abandons Eileen (Bernadette Peters), an unhappy school teacher. A pregnant Eileen comes to Chicago looking for Arthur but becomes a prostitute instead.
This is dark stuff.
“Pennies from Heaven” was a seismic shift for Martin's fans to accept. It failed horribly at the box office, but it is worth reconsideration. Martin and Peters are really good in this film.
This was Martin's second film, as a lead, and frankly, while he's likable, he's not a nice guy.
One of the great things about “Pennies from Heaven” is the actors do not sing or try to recreate the 1930s music. They lip-sync to the original versions of the songs. We can truly appreciate to beauty of those great old songs in a new and melancholy way.
Christopher Walken gives a brilliant performance as Tom, a pimp, while dancing to “Let's Misbehave.”
And in a forgotten performance as the “The Accordion Man” Vernel Bagneris dances to the title song. It is made all the more poignant; by the use Depression-era photos by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange as a background.
The film also pays homage to the great Ashcan School artists Edward Hooper (“Nighthawks,” trust me you know it) and Reginald Marsh (“Hudson Bay Fur Company,” if you watch TCM you know this one, too). It's subtle and not so subtle tributes to great American art.
“Pennies from Heaven” is available on Netflix — the U.S. film and the BBC TV series.
They are worth the time, to see a truer and more emotional musical then those made in the 1930s.
Seriously, who among us hasn't wanted to break into song and tap-dance our troubles away?