Criminally Neglected: Pennies From Heaven

It seems only fitting, upon hearing the news of master cinematographer Gordon Willis’ passing, to review one of his unsung works for this continuing series on criminally neglected films.

"Everybody dance!!!"
Steve Martin is a man whose comedic timing is off the charts. Everyone has seen The Jerk and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. He can play the bombastic as well as the subdued, creating laughs on screen and off, also being an accomplished writer. Roxanne (from a screenplay by Martin) remains one of the best romantic comedies of the 1980s, as well as a sharp-witted contemporary update of classic literature. The adaptation of his own novella Shopgirl gave us an artfully long shot of Claire Danes’ ass. I’m not sure why that’s relevant. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not at all. But damn, that was a nice ass.

With Little Shop of Horrors, we found that he was fully capable as a singer, if not the most reliable dentist. And now that I’ve seen Pennies From Heaven, it’s finally official: Steve Martin can do anything. In this indelibly surreal and hilarious spin on classic 1930s musicals of the depression era, we see Martin tap dancing with athleticism that puts one in mind of the great dancing performers like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He also manages to make a despicable character strangely likable, even as he does things we would cuss out our closest friends for doing.

From the demented and cynical mind of Dennis Potter, the man whose Brimstone and Treacle you may remember from our recent list of Home Invasion Films, this is a movie musical that proudly has Steve Martin and all of his co-stars throwing their arms in the air to say: “This world really sucks! But damn, it’s entertaining!” Filter that perspective through the lens of Herbert Ross, whose Secret of My Success is another film destined for a place in this series on neglected nuggets of awesome, and you’ve got a film of relentless irony double-stuffed with wall-to-wall musical numbers topped off with the visual genius of Gordon Willis.

Steve Martin plays Arthur, a sheet music salesman whose only dreams are to own a store, and maybe—just maybe—get laid. If not by his ice princess of a wife (Jessica Harper from Dario Argento’s Suspiria), then maybe with that mousy virginal school teacher. But this is during the Great Depression; loans from banks are rare, and copulation with the only survivor of a demonic dance school is even more rare. So how does one voice their discontent with the world at large? Lip syncing, of course!

Ross and Willis manifest Potter’s twisted, droll humor into wonderfully over-the-top musical showboat pieces that leave you equal amounts perplexed and giddy with delight. I’m not sure who looked at this material and called it Steve Martin’s “first ever straight dramatic non-comedy role in a major motion picture” (taken straight from IMDB), but they must’ve missed the point. In fact, it would seem that a lot of people did.

"Smoke 'em if ya got 'em!"
Coming right off the heat of The Jerk, and complete with Steve Martin and his co-star from that film, Bernadette Peters, Pennies From Heaven was angrily dismissed by film goers expecting more of the same. Over the years, it’s lapsed into the annals of obscurity, with nary a blu-ray release to its name, and only an out-of-print first generation DVD you may be lucky enough to find at your local library and/or Netflix. Believe me when I say this is worth seeking out in a big way. You may wind up watching the film as I did: With your mouth half agape in a smile that carries a hint of “WTF?!”, but I couldn’t have enjoyed myself more.

And if that isn’t glowing enough of a recommendation, how’s this: Christopher Walken with a Cuban Pete mustache, dancing on a bar in sock garters and a wife beater, motorboating two large breasted women. I bet that got your attention.

-Blake O. Kleiner