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Pennies From Heaven

Pennies From Heaven(1981)

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Steve Martin was fresh off the popular success of his first starring feature film in The Jerk (1979) when he signed on for a particularly chancy project. For his follow-up, he chose a lavishly-mounted big-screen adaptation of an acclaimed 1978 BBC TV miniseries concerning a struggling Depression-era sheet music salesman whose only release from his dreary existence came from slipping into elaborate, Hollywood-ized fantasies orchestrated around the then-popular tunes he peddled. It wasn't at all what an American public still steeped in Martin's stand-up shticks was expecting, and neither it nor most of the critics of the day knew quite what to make of it. Still, Pennies From Heaven (1981), has developed a cult following, and those adherents should derive lots of satisfaction from the film's recent and much-anticipated release to DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video.

Dennis Potter, the British screenwriter also enduringly famous for The Singing Detective (1986), adapted his own teleplay for the screen. Potter would later express his own dissatisfaction with the compression, but he did a remarkable job of preserving the TV show's tone while creating a narrative that quite ably stands on its own. In early '30s Chicago, Arthur Parker (Martin) manages to eke out a living through his primary virtue, an ear for a catchy melody. His only buffer between the long weeks on the road hustling for blase music store owners comes in the unsatisfactory attentions of his sexually repressed wife Joan (Jessica Harper). Though he longs for his own storefront to sell 78s, times are tight and the lenders are unresponsive.

Arthur finds some escape in the course of his travels once he fixates upon the virginal country schoolteacher Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters). Being a wistful dreamer doesn't necessarily make Arthur the nicest guy; he strings Eileen along and gets her pregnant, which ultimately costs her her job. Joan, in a last-ditch effort to keep from losing him, spends her own inheritance to open the record store. The new business proves tepid, however, and Arthur remains unfulfilled, at least until the fallen Eileen re-enters his life.

These developments, along with various subplot threads, are interspersed with lushly mounted production numbers that preserve the miniseries' conceit of having the performers lip-sync to the actual popular renditions of the period score. The crew of Pennies from Heaven were only too eager to show their touch with the fading genre of the musical, and their labors were spectacular. Beyond the showy spectacle of the fantasy sequences, the look and feel of the film's grim "reality" evokes the paintings of Edward Hopper. As a choice for director, Herbert Ross fit the material perfectly; the former choreographer had an impeccable sense of how to capture dance on film, and he would never have another project that so provocatively tapped into those talents.

Martin made a very respectable showing in his first straight acting role. His willingness to venture into less commercially safe waters was commendable, and the film's reception didn't deter him from continuing to do so. Peters, who was also Martin's leading lady off-screen at the time, was ideally cast; her singing and dancing credentials were impeccable, and her kewpie sensuality made her uncannily at home in a '30s scenario. The always-welcome Harper, never one for conventional casting, is particularly memorable as the hung-up, mentally fragile spouse.

In what has unfortunately become a footnote in his career, Christopher Walken provides the right touch of menace as a pimp who takes Eileen under his wing when she comes to the big city is search of Arthur. The actor used his experience as a Broadway chorus boy to audacious effect, performing an energetic striptease to Let's Misbehave. Other standout moments belonged to Vernel Bagneris, a stage dancer who'd never find another fit for his talents in a major motion picture. Cast as an indigent and seemingly innocuous accordionist that Arthur treats to a meal, Bagneris gives a mesmerizing, rubber-legged dance performance to Arthur Tracy's mournful crooning of the title tune.

The extras that Warner provided for the DVD release of Pennies from Heaven are relatively spare but wholly worthwhile. A thoughtful scene-specific commentary is provided by film critic Peter Rainer, who was one of the film's few champions upon its initial release. Also included is a 35-minute video capturing the cast-and-crew symposium that followed the movie's 20th anniversary screening in Los Angeles; Rainier served as moderator for the reminisces of Martin, Harper, costume designer Bob Mackie, editor Richard Marks, art director Bernie Cutler, producer David Chasman and executive producer Rick McCallum.

For more information about Pennies From Heaven, visit Warner Video. To order Pennies From Heaven, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg