The Front Row View: Pennies from Heaven

The Front Row View is a regular column by Great Stories contributor Jim Cannizzaro.  He is a veteran community theater leading man, seasoned blogger, movie enthusiast, and family man.

pennies

One of the oddest movie musicals ever made is Herbert Ross’ 1981 Pennies from Heaven. Based on a 6-part BBC serial (starring the late Bob Hoskins), this was Steve Martin’s follow-up to his smash hit The Jerk. The sparse audiences for Pennies from Heaven must have been floored by their comic hero’s opening moments when he, in all seriousness, lip-synched to a wrenching oldie from the 1930s. This might have been too much of a change too soon for Martin and, while he still has his great screen presence (and has an elegant ’30s look), he hadn’t yet developed the polish as an actor that he would show in his later roles. That said, he’s spectacular in the musical numbers. He matches Fred Astaire in the early “Yes, Yes” number in the bank, and at the end, aping Astaire in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” He also does a mean vaudeville tap number to “It’s the Girl” with the veterans Tommy Rall (a star of many ’50s musicals). and Robert Fitch (the original Rooster in Annie on Broadway). The other stars strut their stuff, too. Bernadette Peters is sexy and appealing as the mousy schoolteacher forced to toughen up when she’s fired from her job. She’s at her best here in the joyous “Love Is Good for Anything that Ails You” number with an army of children both playing and tap dancing on top of white pianos on glorious white set. And, in the best number in the film, Christopher Walken of all people lip-synchs and dances to “Let’s Misbehave”. People who’ve been watching Walken for years will gawp at his great dancing talent and at how powerfully built he is. The number is the equal of anything that Gene Kelly did in his heyday. Pennies from Heaven isn’t for everyone. The shifts from the tremendous musical numbers to the grim, Depression-era reality can be hard to take. But the look of this movie, with it’s odd yet emotionally powerful plot, is transfixing (shot by the great Gordon Willis, who helmed The Godfather, with sets by Ken Adam, who designed some of the best early James Bond films).You have to admire the risk that this movie took to be made in 1981, long after movie musicals went out of fashion. Ross and Company deserved to take a bow.

-Jim

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