Director: Herbert Ross
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As a diehard fan of television playwright Dennis Potter, I have endeavored to view as many of his works as humanly possible. While some of his plays remain hard to secure, I had no explanation for the shamefully gaping hole in my Potter completism that comprised the TV and film versions of Pennies from Heaven. The 1978 miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Crawford as the marginalized losers trying to find happiness in 1930s London continues to elude me, but I don’t have to see the six-part, 450-minute miniseries from the BBC’s golden age of television drama to suspect that it is richer in story and characterization than the 108-minute film, even as adapted for the big screen by Potter himself. And thank heaven for that! Although MGM and Herbert Ross seem fairly obtuse about how Potter used pop music to increase the bitter irony of his plays, Potter’s story and sharp edges remain.
It’s not hard to imagine the meeting that led to the greenlighting of this project. Coming off the surprise success of the indie film The Jerk (1979), Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters must have attracted the bean counters at MGM. Executive producer Rick McCallum was relatively untested, though this first taste of Potter would lead to many more creative projects with the writer, including Dreamchild (1985) and the miniseries “The Singing Detective” (1986) and “Blackeyes,” (1989). Herbert Ross had had a string of successes working with material from playwrights, like Arthur Laurents (The Turning Point ) and Neil Simon (The Sunshine Boys , The Goodbye Girl , and California Suite ), so working with a TV playwright must have seemed a great fit. Finally, the musical aspects of Pennies from Heaven must have been irresistible to “house of musicals” MGM.
Whether or not you love the film Pennies from Heaven may depend upon your relative affinity with the Potter worldview. A man tormented by psoriatic arthritis, a condition that began in his 20s, Potter had an overweaning nostalgia for his childhood in the rural mining community of the Forest of Dean, in Glouchestershire, from which he was culturally separated by attending Oxford. He escaped from his physical pain and deforming condition through writing that drew on his life’s preoccupation with romantic fantasies surrounding women other than his wife, a longing for the idealized world portrayed in many popular songs from the 1930s, and a savage disappointment in the corruption and failures of those in whom he put his trust. Despite the particularity of Potter’s obsessions, his idealism and, as he put it, “tender contempt” for his naïve youth are touching, and his willingness to expose the sizeable warts on his own, as well as other people’s, bums offers an arresting honesty that’s fairly rare.
The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven doesn’t completely jettison Potter’s critique of an immoral, delusional, sheet music salesman and the corrupt society in which he lives. In a twist on the usual New York setting for such films, Chicago is the town where traveling salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) makes his home. This choice may have been a way to tap into Chicago’s “city on the make” image as well as the Midwestern provincialism that would cause Arthur’s wife Joan (Jessica Harper) to hate sex and his mistress Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) to be fired from her school-teaching job in the hinterland Arthur visits for becoming an unwed mother-to-be. Arthur being Arthur, he threatens Joan with an abandonment he would never consider due to her sizable inheritance and promises Eileen that they will be together forever while giving her a fake address to keep her from finding him. Arthur gets the money he wants to start his own music store, as well as the lipsticked nipples Joan reluctantly reveals to him, as her peace offerings. Eileen gets a new name (Lulu), an abortion, and a new career in prostitution in the big city, where she and Arthur eventually reconnect. Pile on a mentally disturbed religious fanatic listed only as the Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris) and a blind girl who gets murdered (Eliska Krupka), and the stage is completely set for a cynical night at the movies.
That’s not what we get, however. Potter’s plays are not musicals; they only use musical interludes of lipsynching and simple dancing to suggest the state of mind of the characters—and usually only one character—that does not necessarily reflect the rosy lyrics of true love, prosperity or naughty flirtation contained in the period songs. The Ross-MGM Pennies from Heaven largely transforms Potter’s very dark tale into a literal homage to 1930s musicals, with 17 different musical numbers. It has the economic misery of the Great Depression in common with its most obvious model, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Ross stages numerous Busby-Berkeley-inspired production numbers; the title tune “Pennies from Heaven” is outlandishly choreographed, with the chorus girls sporting the penny hats from the “We’re in the Money” number in Gold Diggers of 1933. If only some of these production numbers approached the poignancy and bitterness of Gold Diggers’ “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Alas, the film adopts the strategy of using the lyrics to tell the story, a technique that postdates the period Ross is recreating.
I found the musical interludes confusing. In a modern musical, it makes sense for Arthur to lipsynch “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” when he first sees the beautiful Eileen. But whose fantasy is “Let’s Misbehave”? Is it Eileen’s, when she first meets Tom (Christopher Walken), a pimp who does a striptease to reveal a tattoo heart on his chest with “Lulu” scrawled across it? Or is it Tom’s, who might be trying to entice Eileen to come into his stable? Maybe it’s both, as when Arthur and Eileen mimic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” on the stage of the movie theatre where they are seeing Follow the Fleet (1936). Frankly, I don’t think it matters all that much to this film, and thus, the consequences Arthur faces for a crime he didn’t commit—or the sense that perhaps he deserves to be punished on general principle for his boorish, lying behavior and business failure—don’t come into focus. When Joan screams, “Cut his thing off and bury it,” we can’t share her sense of rage; indeed, by 1981, more people would be angry with Joan for being such a frigid bitch than would blame Arthur for cheating on her and pushing her to give in to his kinks and dreams.
I don’t think Steve Martin was ready to play this role. He has considerable acting chops, but he was still very new to dramatic acting when Pennies from Heaven was made, and was still afflicted with the comedians’ curse, the need to please, that kept the savage fires safely below the grate. There are moments when Arthur is cruel and dangerously lascivious, but Martin is helped neither by Ross nor the tame approach to the material to bring them roaring to life. Better cast are Bernadette Peters and Jessica Harper, who burrow deep to bring out some interesting shades in their characters. The scenes with the blind girl and the Accordion Man are confusing as to location and timing, and I blame these miscues on bad editing forced by the studio. The one completely unmitigated joy in the film is Christopher Walken. We all know he can play crazy mean, but who knew he could do a striptease that even Gypsy Rose Lee would envy. He is perfect, but with only one scene, the pleasure is short-lived.
I think it’s rather telling that the go-go 80s started with a mixed-message musical that seems prescient about how the socioeconomic fortunes of the country would go. The blind brutality of a narcissistic schemer, the moralizing vengeance of a rich woman, and the mostly willing descent into prostitution of a small-town girl are redeemed by lavish costumes and sets, perfectly executed production numbers, and a mandated happy ending—which, of course, Potter wrote himself as the measure of denial toward which we were heading. Even if the film had gotten everything right, it was destined to be the flop it was. We just didn’t want to know.