In 1981, Steve Martin took on his second starring role in a motion picture in Pennies From Heaven. It was not exactly what was expected from the guy who’d just starred in The Jerk. People went in looking for broad slapstick, and found themselves in the middle of a deeply cynical musical. Instead of using the musical numbers as uplifting emotional high points, Pennies From Heaven recasts the musical number as an unhealthy fantasy. This goes beyond the musical work of Sondheim, who broadened the emotions depicted by the musicial number to include angst and despair, and subverts the entire concept of the musical. Pennies From Heaven uses the musical form to critique the musical form. It is unclear to me how this ever got greenlit; I suspect MGM was just caught up by the idea of reviving the musical.
Regardless of that, however, Herbert Ross managed to get himself a 22 million dollar budget (in 1981) and made a hell of a movie with it. The art direction is stylized and passionately beautiful; the dance numbers are lush, as they must be in order to effectively subvert themselves. Steve Martin’s Arthur Parker needs to believe utterly and completely that he can escape his drab Depression-era life by entering the musicals of the period; he needs to really think that the homeless accordion player can alleviate his poverty by launching into the title song. Without the contrast, the movie would fail.
At the same time, the grim needs to be properly grim. It is. Steve Martin is perhaps the weakest link here; he was young, and at times his comedic persona got in the way of his acting. Jessica Harper, playing his wife, had primary responsibility for embodying the reality of the Depression; she’s the only main character who never gets to escape. They were good together, but not great, and that for me was the only real weakness of the movie. There wasn’t quite enough tension; we never saw the possibility that Arthur Parker would find his feet on real ground as opposed to the dance floor. He had no reason to come back to his wife.
Then again, maybe that’s just Dennis Potter — the screenwriter — being Dennis Potter.
Anyway, it’s a fairly challenging movie and it’s an angry movie, although I’m not certain who it’s angry with. Everyone, maybe: Arthur and his fantasies, his wife and her inability to indulge desire, Christopher Walken and his slick corruptive influence, and Bernadette Peters for falling into whatever path is the most exciting. A lot of people find it worth watching just for Walken’s dance routine and striptease, and I think I’d have enjoyed that even if I wasn’t fascinated by the rest of the movie. It’s definitely a cult movie and perhaps an acquired taste, but the cast and crew knew just what they wanted to do and they more than accomplished it.