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After shooting Rhythm on the Range (1936), Bing Crosby exercised an option in his Paramount contract that allowed him to make an independent film away from his home studio. He teamed up with former Paramount producer Emanuel Cohen, and before even picking a script, title or score, they reached a distribution agreement with Columbia's Harry Cohn. Each of the three parties would own a third of the project. Now they settled on a property - a 1913 novel by Katherine Leslie Moore called The Peacock's Feather, which they hired Jo Swerling to adapt into the script Pennies from Heaven (1936). (Swerling would later write Leave Her to Heaven, 1945, and It's a Wonderful Life, 1946.)
By the mid-1930s, few Hollywood musicals were acknowledging the Great Depression on screen, preferring stories and settings of the rich and glamorous. Pennies from Heaven was an exception. While it certainly feels like a typically breezy vehicle for Crosby, with his easygoing character wandering into a trifle of a story, there are glimpses of the tough times at hand. In jail as the story begins, Crosby is asked by a condemned prisoner to look after his little girl when Crosby gets out, and to move her and her grandfather into an old family estate. The place is spooky and the family needs money, so naturally Crosby turns the property into a restaurant/nightclub called the Haunted House Cafe - conveniently providing a fine excuse for musical numbers.
Pennies from Heaven is not full of out-and-out song classics, but its score by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston is enjoyable and features "One, Two, Button Your Shoe," "So Do I," "Let's Call a Heart a Heart," "Now I've Got Some Dreaming To Do," and of course the title song, which was nominated for an Oscar® but lost to Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields's "The Way You Look Tonight," from Swing Time. (What an embarrassment of riches the Best Song category was in those days.)
Johnny Burke's collaboration with Crosby was the beginning of an important artistic partnership. As Crosby later wrote, "one of the best things that's happened to me is a one hundred and forty-five pound Irish leprechaun named Johnny Burke." While Burke had had a bit of success in the music industry and had done some minor work-for-hire at Twentieth Century Fox, he was essentially new to the movies. Crosby liked him immediately and decided to give him a chance on Pennies from Heaven. They would become good friends, and for seventeen years Burke was Crosby's personal songwriter, penning such classics as "Moonlight Becomes You," "I've Got a Pocketful of Dreams," "What's New?," and "Swinging on a Star." The song "Pennies from Heaven" was shot live with a full orchestra on the soundstage, instead of pre-recorded as was the norm. The track became so popular that it set new highs in national record sales, and it was covered by many other artists in the years following.
Another musical highlight is "Skeleton in the Closet," performed by Louis Armstrong in the Haunted House Cafe with Lionel Hampton on the drums. Armstrong had had an enormous influence on Crosby's singing style ("He is the beginning and the end of music in America," said Crosby) and now that Crosby had some clout, he wanted to give back a little by featuring Armstrong in the movie. According to Crosby biographer Gary Giddins, Harry Cohn balked at this request, "seeing no reason to entail the expense of flying him in and having no desire to negotiate with Armstrong's crude, mob-linked but devoted manager, Joe Glaser. Bing refused to discuss the matter. [Armstrong] was about to make his Hollywood debut."
Not only did Armstrong make his studio feature debut (an earlier independent feature is lost) he shared billing with the three primary stars of the picture - something that had never before been done for a black performer in a mainstream movie. Again, this was Crosby's doing. The prominent billing along with Armstrong's charming performance (he has some comic dialogue scenes, too) did wonders for Armstrong's career. He swiftly became a regular presence in the movies, often playing himself, and for this he was appreciative of Crosby for the rest of his life. As Armstrong said thirty years later, "Here's paying tribute to one of the finest guys in this musical and wonderful world. With a heart as big. Carry on Papa Bing, Ol' Boy!!"
Producer: Emanuel Cohen
Director: Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay: Katherine Leslie Moore (novel), Jo Swerling
Cinematography: Robert Pittack
Film Editing: John Rawlins
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Johnny Burke, Howard Jackson, Arthur Johnston, Louis Silvers, William Grant Still, John Scott Trotter
Cast: Bing Crosby (Larry Poole), Madge Evans (Susan Sprague), Edith Fellows (Patsy Smith), Louis Armstrong (Henry), Donald Meek (Gramps), John Gallaudet (J.C. Hart).
by Jeremy Arnold