Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde
Steve Martin, meet Arthur Dent.
I don’t know if an actor has ever been sued for deliberately traumatizing her or his audience, but the Steve Martin fans who went to see Pennies from Heaven because they wanted another shot of the Wild & Crazy Kinda Guy they loved in The Jerk could probably make a good case. A few of those fans must never have been quite the same after they left the theatre—to this very day shuddering inwardly every time someone innocently whistles an old Thirties’ show tune. With Pennies from Heaven, Martin suddenly stopped wearing fake arrows on his head and aimed some punishing ones at the hearts and minds of his audience. Good for him.
This movie belongs to an unusual genre of cinema: the brutal musical. Unique. Definitely. Like the Holy Modal Rounders’ acid-folk in the Sixties. As a matter of fact, the entire genre might consist of only two movies, the other being G.W. Pabst’s 1931 version of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. You know, the one with that upbeat little ditty about Mack the Knife. In both Threepenny Opera and Pennies from Heaven the musical numbers, stunning in their own right, leave us looking uneasily over our shoulders because we’re very aware that they’re coming from a world (post-World War I Berlin in the former case, Depression-era America in the latter) that’s fallen apart. When these people start singing “Life is Justa Bowl of Cherries” you know someone’s going to get hurt. Christopher Walken’s striptease to the bouncy lyrics of “Let’s Misbehave”—sung as he lures an unemployed, disgraced former school teacher into prostitution—is devastating.
Steve Martin plays the lead role of Arthur Dent, a restless minor-league sheet music salesman working a rural circuit out of Chicago in 1934. Make-up, hairstyle, and photography combine to give him the chiselled look of a Mafia-style icepick killer. Arthur Dent’s an ambitious man; he just doesn’t have the brains or talent to match his ambitions. He keeps hitting the road with no place to go. On his way to nowhere he manages, with his casual amorality, to destroy the lives of the two people who love him. Dent’s sexually frigid, long-suffering young wife (Jessica Harper) ends up hating him with a feral passion; his casual seduction (Bernadette Peters) winds up at the mercy of the streets of Chicago. Dent himself ultimately meets a bad end. Sort of. Maybe. Something happens to the tune of “Let’s Face the Music (and Dance).”
More so than at any other time, Hollywood in the early Thirties was the Great American Dream Machine. Pennies from Heaven is that dream gone sour. Brilliantly photographed by Gordon Willis, strikingly choreographed by Danny Daniels, with strong direction from Herbert Ross. This movie hurts. Five years later Woody Allen would take another heartbreaking shot at the Dream Machine in The Purple Rose of Cairo. If, as Charles Dickens once wrote, we all need circuses, we should also be grateful when someone occasionally unmasks the clowns.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Pennies from Heaven is to musicals what Unforgiven is to westerns. Grim and cruel and revisionist. Those adjective might fit a western, but they’ re not words usually associated with musicals. Like Unforgiven, Pennies From Heaven is a film you can respect without particularly liking it. And just as I’d rather watch The Outlaw Josey Wales or Pale Rider or High Plains Drifter than Unforgiven, I’d take any almost any musical by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, the Nicholas Brothers, and Busby Berkeley over Pennies From Heaven.
I think what’s changed for me is that in the 30 years that have gone by since I first reviewed Pennies From Heaven I’ve watched most of the great musical and grown to love them for their grace, their elegance, their extravagance, their romanticism, and their silliness. I’ve also grown very fond of Bollywood musicals. To take this genre, twist its guts inside out, and give it a kind of cynical film noir treatment seems as sadistic as it was inevitable.
There’s no faulting the talent involved in Pennies. Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, and Christopher Walken are perfect in their roles. It wouldn’t hurt so much if they were unconvincing. Master cinematographer Gordon Willis provides the visuals (including some picture perfect Edward Hopper), Ken Adam worked on Production Design, Bob Mackie did the Costume Design, Dennis Potter did the screenplay. It’s definitely one of Herbert Ross’s best efforts as director.
Some highlights for me this second time around: Gordon Willis’s visuals, Christopher’s Walken’s tapdancing striptease to the tune of “Let’s misbehave,” brief glimpses of what Busby Berkeley’s musicals might have looked like had he had a chance to work in colour, and the superb black & white dance number where a line of dapper dancing canes morphs into a wall of prison bars. The latter is an original piece of choreography/cinematography worthy of the best of the genre.
All in all, Pennies from Heaven is the kind of picture the expression sui generis was made for—one of a kind, like it or leave it. Pauline Kael liked it. She called it “the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen.” Check out her full review if you can find it. (Why isn’t there a paulinekael.com website?) My perspective’s closer to Roger Ebert’s, who described the movie as “dazzling and disappointing in equal measure” (rogerebert.com).
My recommendation for a musical that combines dance and social commentary effortlessly is Ettore Scola’s Le bal, which tells a 50-year history of France, starting in the 1920s, through the music and dance that’s featured in a single Parisian dance hall. I’m still looking for a DVD copy.