Pennies From Heaven (1981)

“There must be someplace where them songs are for real…”

Pennies Poster

During the Depression, a philandering salesman (Steve Martin) cheats on his wife (Jessica Harper) with a naive schoolteacher (Bernadette Peters) who becomes a prostitute when Martin fails to return.


Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary notes, this “grimmest of all movie musicals” — based on a six-part BBC miniseries by British writer Dennis Potter — is also “one of the most fascinating and visually dazzling”, with an “extraordinary look” that incorporates “re-creations of paintings by Edward Hopper” (see still below). Martin — in his first serious role after The Jerk (1979) — plays Arthur, a horny, hopelessly romantic traveling salesman whose inability to get any nooky back at home (his wife, well-played by Jessica Harper, is “contentedly frigid”) leads him to pursue an affair with Peters, with whom he falls in lust at first sight. Unfortunately, while Arthur starts off as a relatively sympathetic character — we can understand his desire for some attention, and his tendency to daydream himself into musical fantasy sequences is charming — he quickly loses credibility, as he lies to Peters to get her to sleep with him, then fails to return to her once his wife agrees to fund his dream of opening a record store. Indeed, both the characters and the story — in which “sex and songs are presented as liberating forces, but [are] only Band-Aids against the Depression — are “so cheerless that you become anesthetized”; yet, as Peary notes, it’s still possible to recognize “the artistry of what’s taking place on the screen”, and film fanatics will surely want to check it out at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Several enjoyable Busby Berkeley-homages
    Pennie Busby
  • Striking set designs
    Pennies Set Design
  • Gordon Willis’s cinematography
    Pennies Cinematography
  • Vernel Bagneris performing “Pennies from Heaven”
    Pennies Heaven Dance
  • Bernadette Peters as Eileen
    Pennies Peters
  • Jessica Harper as Joan
    Pennies Harper

Must See?
Yes, as a most unusual — if utterly bleak — musical. Peary nominates Steve Martin for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actor of the Year.



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