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Pennies from Heaven (1981)
Pennies from Heaven is a 1981 musical film. The film was based on a 1978 BBC television drama. In 1981, Dennis Potter adapted his own screenplay for a film of the same name for American audiences, with its setting changed to Depression era Chicago. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay, but lost to On Golden Pond. The film starred Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. The director was Herbert Ross and the choreographer was Danny Daniels. In 1934, Chicago sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Martin) is having a hard time, both in his business and at home with his wife Joan (Harper). His business is failing and Joan is not amorous enough for Arthur and refuses to give him the money she inherited from her father to start his own business. Arthur's dream is to live in a world that is like the songs he tries to sell. He is refused a bank loan, although he fantasizes that he gets it to a song and dance routine of "Yes! Yes!!". In his travels, Arthur meets a shy, beautiful but plain school teacher, Eileen (Peters).
Martin plays Arthur, a down-on-his luck sheet-music salesman worn out by his loveless marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper) - loveless, in part, because his life with Joan can't match the fantasies produced by the lyrics he sells. Hitting the road, he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a mousy but sweet school teacher. Together, they fall in love, and express that love in dance and song. Sort of: They're actually lip-synching to songs of the 30s, riffing on old music the same way that Martin would riff on old films less successfully a few years later in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. After Arthur gets cold feet about the relationship - not before dancing quite well - Eileen falls into the dastardly clutches of Tom (Walken), a pimp. It's Walken's performance that makes the film - a dowdy but charming tap-dance striptease to Cole Porter's 'Let's Misbehave.' With a pencil-thin mustache and a lecherous leer, he has all the fearfulness he showed in The Deer Hunter with a sophistication he never showed off often enough.
In the end, though, there were too many quirky notions floating around Pennies from Heaven to make it a success; its failure scared MGM off from musicals for years. A few decades of deeply ironic Hollywood films makes its high-concept attack easier to swallow, but just as importantly it's a pleasure to look at. Director Herbert Ross, along with cinematographer Gordon Willis, captures the look and feel of 30s America, both in the wide shots of dank city alleyways and tight interiors of sleazy bars and bedrooms. One shot deliberately echoes Edward Hopper's famous painting 'Nighthawks,' and that's the mood Pennies from Heaven evokes: Dark as night but perfectly lit, a little sad but with a song in its heart.
The cast and crew reunite for a 20 year reunion (done live after some screening) included on the DVD. Film critic Peter Rainer offers minimalistic commentary on a handful of scenes (What, couldn't get through the whole thing? Huh.).
Heavens to Betsy!