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A strange musical from a studio not known for many great musicals, this mid-depression Bing Crosby vehicle shows him establishing his persona, singing his way through a fairly disposable story. But three of the songs are winners, and Louis Armstrong is along for a terrific number to keep the show from being totally forgettable.
Somewhere before The Road to Morocco (not to be confused with last year's lighthearted The Road to Perdition), the smooth crooner Bing found his screen persona. In the very early talkie musicals, like The King of Jazz, his big ears and bad makeup made him look like a misshapen Mr. Potato Head. In his guest shots in other musicals, he usually sounded great but still looked ... odd. Crosby had a melodious voice tailor-made for lo-fi radio - lots of personality. Pennies from Heaven has him shoehorned into a lightly plotted melodrama that enables him to flex his laid-back, proto-hipster lounge cool image.
For a rather shapeless story, Pennies from Heaven starts arrestingly, almost like The Night of the Hunter. An aimless drifter takes a clue from a condemned man and moves into the lives of some strangers, adopting a new family, so to speak. The basic structure is pure corn, a depression-era trifle about healing the country by forming new families out of broken ones.
Screenwriter Jo Swerling (one of the authors of It's A Wonderful Life) has fashioned kind of a broken-down Frank Capra film. Like Mr. Deeds or John Doe, Larry is a non-conformist trying to get along in the world while avoiding its unpleasant institutions. There's a nice scene where he breezes into the office of the social worker, and asks right out what the family has to do to make the social system leave them alone. The reactionary Hollywood response to the New Deal is that the government's new services are unwelcome meddlers, that ordinary folks can take care of themselves on their own.
Swerling probably adapted the book in an afternoon. The chronically unemployed Larry takes a dangerous carnival job to try to redeem poor Patsy from the orphanage. Near the end, there's an unexpected and counterproductive montage-search in the big city that just stretches out the running time.
Crosby is about 70% of the way to his eventual mellow, doped-up-by-success look, and does just fine. Donald Meek and Madge Evans can't make much with their stock parts, but Edith Fellows is borderline endearing as the street smart hick kid. She naturally bursts with personality and claims Crosby as her surrogate dad from the get-go.
The music is definitely the reason Pennies from Heaven has survived, but the film's debut of the famous title tune isn't its classic recording. Affable Bing warbles it as a cheer-up for Patsy, neutralizing its basic angst. It sounds fine, but its creepiness is missing. The song has a Detour-like streak of fatalism that comes out loud in clear in the other cover version immortalized in Dennis Potter's miniseries, the one that was remade in 1981 by Herbert Ross with Steve Martin. Vernel Bagneris lip-synched it while tap dancing in the rain; it's an 'every cloud has a silver lining' song with a heavy, emotional emphasis on crushing misery. It's the often-skipped intro bars that have the power:
The best things in life / Were absolutely free.
But no one appreciated / A sky that was always blue.
And no one congratulated / A moon that was always new.
So it was planned that they would vanish now and them
And you must pay before you get them back again.
That's what storms were made for
And you shouldn't be afraid for ...
Every time it rains it rains - Pennies from heaven ...
The privations of the depression suggested to downtrodden Americans that they were being punished for some kind of original sin, an idea that comes through the intro loud and clear. The lyric line, "And you must pay to get them back again" warns that an important but indefinable something of existence has been lost, and is possibly unrecoverable. Among powerful depression songs like Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and Remember My Forgotten Man, this is surely the most poetic. Bing's top-ten version uses the creepy preamble, but inverts its meaning.
The other highlight is the Louis Armstrong novelty number Skeleton in the Closet, that's worked in when he headlines the entertainment for the Smiths' new restaurant. Armstrong's overwhelming sense of fun and knowing way with the lyrics defuses the typical mid-30s brand of racism. The song begins with wide-eyed dialogue about spooks, and ends with the entire band diving out the window when the law arrives: "Cheese it, the Sheriff!' In an earlier scene, when there are no chickens to cook up to serve to the guests, Louis immediately volunteers his 'boys' to round up a few dozen. Black citizen = chicken thief, an equation meant to be satirical. With Armstrong in the role, the offense is minimized.
Another song in the orphanage scene, a catchy swing tune done with the kids, racked Savant's brain for a while, until I realized I'd been hearing it for years in the 1955 movie Picnic. In between the Nee-Wallah chant and Stardust, the Labor Day crowd dances to several tunes. Included are an instrumental of Pennies from Heaven, and the last is this same jaunty theme. I guess it's clear that when scouring the files for reusable tunes already owned by the studio, the Columbia music department stumbled onto this title. Funny how film history all links together.
Columbia TriStar's DVD of Pennies from Heaven has a fine Hi-Def-mastered transfer, with exceptionally clear sound. Besides some bonus trailers, there are no special features; the long list on the package back are actually descriptions of formatting content.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pennies from Heaven rates:
Response from 'Gordon' on the song Pennies From Heaven, 2/7/03:
1. Glenn- I first thought you might be overloading the song Pennies From Heaven when you linked it with the concept of original sin, but, no, I think you may be onto something. First of all, you're right about the verse, which is absolutely essential to the core meaning of the song. I always thought, well, here's the Depression and the song is saying, you can't have light without darkness, joy without sorrow--the old ying-yang--but musically, as you point out, the song is on the dark side of wistful, dolorous, even. But then the essence of original sin is sorrowful, and fateful, knowledge (the apple from the tree of), and, given the context of the Depression, upending your umbrellas to fill them with pennies becomes a sardonic, almost bitter, image; in a way, the song doesn't believe its own smiley face message of hope. Dennis Potter's British edition of Pennies drove this feeling home when the vagabond lip-synched a lugubrious but effectively doleful Brit vocal. It's one of few musical numbers from Potter's films that doesn't seem to trade in irony: the song believes things are just as hopeless as Potter does.
And don't get me started on the muddled, totally unnecessary Steve Martin remake.
But back to the song: people miss a lot from songs of the first four decades of the 20th century when they don't hear the verse, especially with lyricists like Ira Gershwin and Dorothy Fields working with composers like George Gershwin and Jimmie McHugh. Look at the Depression-referencing in Fields' verse for I Can't Give You Anything But Love:
Gee, but it's tough to be broke, kid,
Not as dark as Pennies, but pretty tart nonetheless (listen to Annette Hanshaw's 1928 recording of this tune if you want it heard done right).
Thanks for highlighting the special mood of that song, Glenn. -Gordon