Steve Martin burst onto the national radar with his comedy album “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978). He followed that success by starring in his first feature film, the box office bonanza The Jerk (1979) directed by Carl Reiner and co-starring his then-current flame, Bernadette Peters. Although The Jerk was merely crass instead of authentically humorous, Martin and Peters re-teamed for Herbert Ross’ winningly experimental Pennies From Heaven (1981). Predictably, American audiences smelled something new with the film, and stayed away. Many critics were more astute and praised the film, which prompted Martin and Reiner to briefly follow that attempted path of originality in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and Man With Two Brains (1983). Alas, like the rest of that decade, what started in a burst of creative energy petered out midway through and succumbed to formula.
Paralleling the rise and fall of the 1980s was Martin’s work as an interesting artist. He simply ceased to take chances after his role as the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and rendered himself irrelevant. In contrast, Peters continued to challenge herself, instead of taking the safe route. It is her post Pennies career, rather than Martin’s, which is more consistently satisfying.
Pennies from Heaven is an idiosyncratic and delightfully grim film, and it separates authentic critics from the weak-kneed boys by defying the rules of filmmaking and confounding those who expect dogmatic adherence to genre expectations (with due apologies to Mr. Ebert). It startles us even today and seems as fresh and innovative as it did thirty years ago.
Dennis Potter wrote the screenplay, which sprang from his 1978 BBC mini-series of the same name. As in his later script for Dreamchild (1985), Potter achieves a level of unsettling emotional intensity rarely achieved in the medium. Potter and Ross recreate a mythological Depression era, lifted straight from the haunting canvases of Edward Hopper, giving the film its unique texture.
Arthur (Martin) is a down on his luck sheet music salesman trying to ply his wares in a corrupt world. Compounding his frustration is his downright Victorian marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper). When Arthur encounters the uninhibited Eileen (Peters), he is not above lying about his marital status.
The characters lip-synch to songs from 1930s musicals and, surprisingly, it works. Often, Pennies From Heaven supersedes its source material because—let’s be frank—do any of us ever watch period musicals for their emotional depth or narrative substance?
A web of lies, back alley abortions, and the rape and the murder of a blind girl are not going to add up to an Astaire/Rogers happy ending. (Arthur and Eileen even take the place of that famous duo by literally stepping into a scene from 1936’s Follow the Fleet). Christopher Walken has an all too brief scene, doing a slimy striptease as only he can. Martin is refreshingly subdued. We root for him and Eileen, despite his manipulations. Harper is equally good, and it’s a revelation of some kind that her character in 1981 is not the one we are asked to identify with or root for, as we would have fifty years earlier.
Pennies From Heaven was a gutsy movie in 1981. It still is, never once succumbing to bland and pretentious realism, while at the same time never alienating us emotionally. Ross, Potter, Martin, Peters, Harper, and Walken all proved that the good and original musical had not gone the way of the dinosaur. Alas, it took European audiences to respond to them.