Pennies from Heaven was a ridiculous flop upon its initial release in the winter of 1981-'82, grossing considerably less than half of its $22 million budget back at a time when that was real money, and honestly, it makes a lot of sense that it would. It was a musical at a time when virtually nobody in the mainstream audience had even the smallest desire in seeing such things, but an idiosyncratic and severely mis-marketed musical perfectly designed to piss off the genre's few remaining diehard fans. It was a remake in 107 minutes of a simply glorious six-part BBC miniseries that had debuted three years earlier to some of the most enraptured reviews in the history of television, which guaranteed that its natural audience was going to have their sharpest knives drawn for even the slightest infraction against the honor of the original. It was Steve Martin's first movie after The Jerk set him up as a wildly beloved comic leading man, and his new legions of fans were assuredly not expecting to see him jump track to a pitch-black satiric tragedy committed to probing the worst of humanity.
What is a little bit surprising, to me at least, is that time eventually caught up with the movie, sort of. Watching it from the vantage point of three decades, it still feels like the stuff of cult fandom, a difficult, bitter little thing that really does not want at all to be liked; and yet the critical consensus has turned almost all the way around to regard Pennies from Heaven as a smart variation on the classic movie musical, a bit of filmmaking as film criticism to be respected and admired above and beyond its relationship to the legendary miniseries that it pushed out of print for more than 20 years. Maybe it hasn't yet become a popular hit; and it probably won't ever do that - a depressing movie is a depressing movie is a depressing movie, and being a savagely ironic musical only makes it worse.
The film takes place in and near Chicago in 1934, right in the darkest patch of the Depression, where Arthur Parker (Martin) scratches out something less than a living selling sheet music from city to city, a goodly number of years after phonographs and radio had turned sheet music into an anachronism. Arthur is not a very pleasant man at all, and this is the first place that Pennies from Heaven decides to screw with the audience: he is a selfish jerk who snaps at his wife, Joan (Jessica Harper) for no reason at all, seduces a pretty and desperately shy schoolteacher out in the sticks, Eileen (Bernadette Peters), and then loses interest in her the second that he wins her, and has a filthy mouth that he unashamedly airs in public - nothing terribly vicious, just a lot of "god damns" but it was the '30s and all. He's got a dirty kinky side, though his kinks are as pathetically small as they are churlishly adolescent: asking Joan to put lipstick on her nipples and acting like an especially dumb puppy dog when she does; repeatedly sketching a fantasy where he bribes an elevator operator to turn around while he has sex in between floors. Tawdry stuff, but almost charmingly unsophisticated.
Arthur is, in short, a sleazy little scumball, trying to carve a space for himself in the middle of widespread misery and suffering by ratcheting up precisely his most undesirable personality flaws. He is also, of all the sad and broken-down people that make up the whole of the film's cast, its single bright and shining romantic: he doesn't just sell pop songs, he believes with every last molecule of his being in the upbeat, peppy message of love and optimism and stick-to-it gumption that they sell. And the gulf between his wholehearted idealism and the increasingly sordid details of his life causes him more agony than all the setbacks and sexual frustrations put together. It is a meaty, alienating role to play, and it is the best thing Martin ever did, apologies to his estimable career as a top-shelf comedian, in the days before he became a shameless whore.
Arthur lives in perpetual fantasy: frequently throughout the film, he imagines the conversations and circumstances around him as big, elaborate dance numbers choreographed to those same beloved pop songs, which he and those around him lip-synch to the crackly, low-fi recordings from the early '30s. These are not, incidentally, the really good '30s pop songs - there's a touch of Porter and Berlin, but mostly these are invisible and anonymous ditties that are altogether fetching and fun if you're into that sort of thing - and Pennies from Heaven isn't going to be a very edifying experience if you're not - but uniformly banal and lightweight. Arthur's fantasies are of the most exhaustively trivial sort, which makes his pie-eyed belief in the deep truths of these songs all the sadder, and startlingly sympathetic given how very little reason we are ever given to like this man in even the slightest degree.
The paradox that makes Pennies from Heaven a work of genius, and not just a wallow in misery, is what pop music stands for. On the one hand, the worldview expressed in these songs and worshipped by Arthur is hung out to dry as not just a pack of lies, but not even terribly convincing or compelling lies - it is this half of the equation that led people in 1981 to write the film off as the wickedest thing on two legs, famously including Fred Astaire, '30s movie star and professional purveyor of exactly the cheap fantasies that the film indicts.
But then, the film is also almost as much in love with these songs as Arthur himself, and through him it demonstrates that, lies or not, frothy entertainment makes people feel better, and sometimes that is the one and only thing you've got. This is an old message, articulated best in the late-Depression comedy Sullivan's Travels; the biggest difference is that Pennies from Heaven is expressing that with a huge mound of bitterness, less "thank God we have these light distractions to save us from being constantly depressed", more "Christ, the best we can hope for is this disposable tosh? How horrible life is". But it understands that we enjoy the spectacle of song-and-dance, and does not mock us for it. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the movie lies when Arthur watches, entraptured, as that same Fred Astaire dances with Ginger Rogers in "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet - a 1936 film, but the passage of time in the movie doesn't specifically forbid it - and in his dream, he and Eileen simply recreate the dance those two greats did the first time; it is a sweet and haunting demonstration of how profoundly even the glossiest entertainment can affect us in the right mood.
So far, almost everything I've written applies to the movie and the miniseries to exactly the same degree - both were written by Dennis Potter, after all, one of the great writers in British television history, a man who knew more about obscure '30s pop than is fair, and an author with one of the blackest worldviews ever given a wide audience (compared to his other biggest project, The Singing Detective, Pennies is actually the cheerier work). The film is not at all a retread, nor is it a protracted exercise in missing the point like the 2003 feature version of The Singing Detective: it is comfortably and cozily its own animal, in some ways worse than the miniseries and in some ways different, but always successful on its own terms. The biggest change is simply one of scope: at roughly four times the length, the miniseries had much more time to explore the details and implications of its story, which was much to the benefit of some of the characters, particularly the ladies: Joan is a shallower character than she was in '78, while Eileen's complex journey from dovelike schoolmarm to hard-bitten cynical prostitute is hurried along so quickly in the feature that it takes all of Peters's skill to keep the character remotely coherent - she is perfectly cast, even if she virtually never sings with her own voice: the emotional changes couldn't be a better fit for what she does if the part had been written with her in mind.
The other major shift is with the musical numbers that are the film's bread and butter: in the miniseries, shot on BBC-quality video, everything looks uniformly cheap and tacky, depressingly suggesting that even in his broadest fantasies, Arthur couldn't scrape himself above squalor. The movie had a hell of a lot of money thrown at it - insanely, given how thoroughly Potter indicted the reality-dodging fantasies of Depression-era entertainment, MGM apparently had it in mind that this movie was going to be a grand return to the extravagant days of the Freed Unit musicals in the '40s and '50s - and director Herbert Ross, a reliably unexceptional studio pro making with this his most ambitious movie by several orders of magnitude, pitched himself headlong into making his film as sweeping and excessive as made any sense at all. The dances here are not at all chintzy; it is almost without question the grandest movie musical of the 1980s and probably the '70s as well. The one everyone always remembers is a snazzy striptease/tap-dance to Cole Porter's saucy "Let's Misbehave", as performed by Christopher Walken as a Mephistophelean pimp, and the reasons for that are as obvious as "Christopher Walken, tap-dancing pimp"; also, it is pretty much the only part of the whole movie that is at all funny (this was when Walken stealing the whole picture with a one-scene performance was a good thing, not an immeasurably sad thing). It's not the best number, though it far and away the most entertaining. The title song, danced by a mentally retarded busker (Vernel Bagneris) as a gorgeous soft-shoe in glistening rain, makes a good claim at the best-in-show title; so does Arthur's bouncy, Ziegfeldian number when he daydreams about getting a nice bank loan, "Yes, Yes!". My private favorite is the finale, "The Glory of Love", which proves that one of the busiest, most ebullient chorus lines in a movie since the death of the great musicals in the '50s can double as a most soul-shaking burst of anger and particularly acidic cynicism.
The very bigness, the Hollywood dazzle of it all, makes the movie Pennies from Heaven even more shocking than its TV predecessor, since the sarcasm and bitterness are set off more; and yet it's at the same time more swoony and sweet for the same reason. I prefer the miniseries for its scope, and for the greatly increased depth of its characters; but the movie's more elevated reality and its implosive placement within the Hollywood Dream Factory make that a closer call than it might have been (I hate to say it, but the story works better in America than England, once the particularly British touches of the miniseries were taken out of the mix). It's too cutting in its irony to fairly count as a great musical, but it's a great something: a heaving mixture of the highest and lowest human emotions stirred up into a candy shell, cut with straight arsenic.