Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Pennies from Heaven before, and I’m certain I won’t again; it’s a strange, difficult picture, built on incongruence and unhappiness. The notion (of both the film and Dennis Potter’s original BBC mini-series) is that the razzle-dazzle movie musicals of the 1930s sharply contrasted with the real lives of average folks during the Great Depression, a point illustrated by telling a downbeat, realistic story interspersed with stunning song-and-dance sequences. On top of that, the production numbers are all mimed to popular records of the time, with the emphasis on emotion rather than illusion (so that, for example, a high-pitched female song of longing might come out of Steve Martin’s mouth).
The resulting film is recklessly uneven but strangely fascinating; it doesn’t quite work, but you can’t believe they’re even trying it. It is anchored by a peculiar Martin performance—this was only his second starring role (after The Jerk) and he comes up with an interesting, almost schizophrenic interpretation, playing the dialogue scenes in a flat, manner-of-fact fashion, while morphing into a wide-eyed wonder during the musical numbers that’s something akin to his stand-up persona. “They tell the truth, songs do,” he insists, and later he pines, “there must be a place where the songs are real.” There’s real pain and real skill in this performance, and it’s hard to imagine him doing anything remotely this risky at this unfortunate point in his career.
No matter where you stand on the ying-and-yang of the downer story and the upper songs (and I’m somewhere in the middle; it’s a lovely trick that gets a bit overplayed by the time the picture’s 108 minutes draw to a close), you must admit that the craftsmanship of the production numbers is astonishing: Bob Mackie’s costumes are ravishing, the production design by Philip Harrison and cinematography by Gordon Willis (Manhattan, The Godfather) are astonishing, and Danny Daniels’ choreography is marvelous (the three-man dance number and the big closer being the highlights). And Christopher Walken absolutely stops the show—his tart, sneering, tap dance/striptease to “Anything Goes” is a barn-burner. Pennies from Heaven never quite lands as a coherent whole, but the fact that a major studio spent this much money to try and bring this kind of cockeyed vision to the screen is certainly something worth celebrating.