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Pennies From Heaven
USA 1981
Directed by Herbert Ross
Running time 108 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


This Hollywood reworking of the 1978 Dennis Potter BBC six-part teleseries of the same name will be a delight for anyone who appreciates classic 1920s and 30s songsmithing as long as they are willing to take it with a solid serve of the off-beat.

Steve Martin steps into the role originally played by Bob Hoskins as a Depression-era sheet music salesman, Arthur, trapped in a humdrum existence with a frigid wife, Joan (Jessica Harper) and who escapes into the dream world of the songs he peddles. On the road he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a school teacher. He gets her pregnant but runs back to his wife and Eileen becomes a street-walker after having an abortion. They eventually re-connect and Arthur realizes that she is the woman for him but the Hand of Fate has stepped in and its too late.

Martin had his first major screen success in 1979 with The Jerk as a wacky comic and this role was a radical change of pace. He does an outstanding job in the lead showing both acting and dancing skills and is well supported by Peters although it is Christopher Walken who has the stand-out number as he does a burlesque tap dance to Cole Porter's “Let's Misbehave”, one of his most memorable ever on-screen appearances.

Although of course Potter remains the originating genius, setting 1930s Tin Pan Alley songs in a deliciously perverse way by having his characters breaking out into fantasy sequences in which they act out the numbers, miming to original recordings. Director Herbert Ross, along with cinematographer Gordon "The Godfather" Willis, do a superb job of capturing the look and feel of the era and staging the songs and making the film a distaff homage to Busby Berkley.

Pennies From Heaven bombed commercially, its morally weak and louche characters, its intertextualizing of largely forgotten songs and its mixture of razzle dazzle and gallows humour being altogether too warped for mainstream audiences but it is a delight for anyone with a taste for the dark side with musical accompaniment.

 

 

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