Pennies from Heaven February 21, 2019
1 Hr., 48 Mins.
he first movie in which the comedian-actor Steve Martin starred following his breakthrough, 1979’s The Jerk, was Pennies from Heaven (1981). Talk about a pivot. Whereas The Jerk was a flyaway surrealist comedy — a 95-minute-long gag, really — Pennies from Heaven was a tragicomic musical, often made to at least stylistically resemble the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles of the 1930s. In Pennies from
Heaven, audiences were likely expecting something just as vertiginously funny as The Jerk. So, naturally, it was a box-office bomb, a reality largely attributed to Martin’s whiplash-inducing change of heart. But commercial dismissal is plainly not synonymous with inferiority, and Pennies from Heaven reiterates that truth. Here is one of the rare latter-day cinemusicals to locate, and then impressively expand on, the bittersweetness sitting at the center of movie musicals aplenty.
The feature is a romantic drama, and a triangularly oriented one at that. Driving the film are the married couple Arthur and Joan (Martin and Jessica Harper) and an elementary-school teacher whom Arthur starts seeing on the side, Eileen (Bernadette Peters). Each character is dissatisfied. Arthur is a sheet-music salesman but yearns to start his own business. Joan is mild-mannered and glum, almost having reached the precipice of homemaking-bred tedium. Arthur and Joan’s marriage is intensely unhappy. Their sex life is basically defunct, and, adding insult to injury, Joan refuses to make use of a recent inheritance, maybe as a way to torment the business-minded Arthur. Though Eileen likes her job, she’s deeply lonely once it’s time to head home.
When Arthur and Eileen meet for the first time — or, rather, lock eyes from across a music shop for the first time — it’s clear, especially to Arthur, that there’s something there. (He thinks it’s love at first sight.) When they begin having an affair, it seems as if it could be a cure for their woes, so long as Arthur figures out a way to permanently leave Joan. But obstacles, not limited to Arthur’s guilt, make way — the biggest an unexpected pregnancy.
Pennies from Heaven is a musical, but its subversions sometimes make it feel more like an avant-garde drama with songs. Although it’s not unusual for musical actors to lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks, Pennies from Heaven does away with the idea of actors singing at all. Members of the ensemble move their mouths to songs that diegetically play on the radio, like Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave" (1927) and Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” (The latter song debuted in the 1936 musical Follow the Fleet, a fact the 1934-set Pennies from Heaven merrily ignores.) Most dance sequences markedly take place inside an oasis of a mirage. A longing gaze can result in a particularly rhythmic daydream; a trip to the movies might find our protagonists reimagined, in a movie within the movie, as the aforementioned Astaire and Rogers.
In cinemusicals galore, to break out into song or dance is generally an extension of a particularly strong emotion. Why not suddenly start acting like a gonzo vaudevillian in a grocery store? In Pennies from Heaven, by contrast, the placement of a musical sequence is purposefully disjointed, and comes with overpowering sadness. When characters lip-sync to their songs of choice, there is a desperation in their eyes and expressions that suggests that every fiber of their being would like to experience or, at the very least, believe in what they’re “singing.” When a dance breaks out in a fantasy, overhanging is an idea that any place is better than reality. In other movies, these sorts of descents are forms of catharsis; in Pennies from Heaven, they’re desperate escapes. The finale, a gut-punch, proves how convoluted a thing a happy ending can be.
Sometimes when I watched Pennies from Heaven, I thought: this is what La La Land (2016) wanted to be. That movie, which I praised highly immediately on release but about which I have since come to have reservations, does a lot of what Pennies from Heaven does. It, too, is a paean to the Hollywood musical of the yesteryear, and it, too, wears melancholia like an exorbitantly priced perfume. But La La Land was ultimately more a work that wanted to be pat on the back — a movie keener on emptily playing “spot the reference” than using elements of the films admired by its writer and director, Damien Chazelle, and reinvigorating them. Pennies from Heaven more plausibly inserts musical characteristics into a dark, Depression-era staging of the quotidian. It doesn’t want to please us, per se. Its characters seem convinced that, if they so choose to mimic their musical idols, perhaps they will also experience such frothy euphoria.
Pennies from Heaven isn’t as much a love letter, either. It is easy, now, to watch glittered genre movies of the 1930s and more easily stomach the reverie. We are so far removed from the era from which those films came that they sometimes might purely feel like a fantasy. But through the screenwriter Dennis Potter’s sharp juxtaposition of the middle-class everyday and the fantasia of old Hollywood-style filmmaking do feelings of aspiration, and notions of failure by comparison, become increasingly agonizing.
It’s a pleasure to see Martin and Peters so unusually subdued. Save for the song-and-dance sequences, during which they respectively get to bring out their predilections for loose, goofy physical comedy and a Fanny Brice-like stage presence, in Arthur and Eileen do I see people so beaten down by life that to so much as smile, at certain points, feels like an act of courage. Martin finds a sweet spot in Arthur’s frayed ambition; Peters imbues Eileen’s tragic arc with affecting heartache. “Arthur, you’ll never be satisfied,” Eileen tells her illicit lover at one point in Pennies from Heaven. But in the moments when he’s outside himself — especially when he’s singing and dancing inside his mind — perhaps he finds some of the satisfaction that so eludes him. A