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Pennies From Heaven

Warner Bros. // R // July 27, 2004
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 30, 2004 | E-mail the Author
Lavish, sincere, but ultimately inadvisable, the 1981 film version of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven plays, inevitably, like a Cliff Notes version of the original British television miniseries. Anyone interested in the material is strongly urged to see the TV version first.

The American adaptation (also written by Potter) moves the setting to Chicago circa 1934, but otherwise the story is virtually identical, if greatly abridged. In the midst of the Great Depression, sheet music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) would be as bad off as everyone else if not for his moneyed, traditional wife, Joan (Jessica Harper). Her frigidity strains her marriage to sex-obsessed Arthur.

On a sales trip, Arthur meets a pathetic homeless man, known in the credits as Accordion Man (Vernel Bagneris), who plays hymns on street corners and sleeps in nearby alleys. At a music shop, Arthur also encounters a beautiful, virginal schoolteacher, Eileen (Bernadette Peters), with whom Arthur eventually begins an affair.

In sharp contrast to the bleak setting and their unhappy lives, characters frequently mime to (and sometimes sing) popular songs of the period. "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Pennies from Heaven," "The Clouds will Soon Roll By." The effect is Brechtian and deliberately non-natural.

The TV version of Pennies from Heaven won unprecedented praise and launched a brief but interesting Hollywood career for its author. Besides the big-budget ($22 million, a huge sum in 1981 dollars) remake of Pennies from Heaven, in short order Dennis Potter wrote scripts for Brimstone & Treacle (1982), Gorky Park (1983), Dreamchild (probably his best film, 1985), and Track 29 (1988). Eventually though, Potter returned to the medium best suited to his enormous talent.

The movie of Pennies from Heaven has everything going for it except time. Potter's style -- the structures of his teleplays, the complexities (and complexes) of his characters -- just isn't suited to the movies, at least those adapted from much longer television versions. Potter probably would have been better off writing something original for the screen (though he probably had no choice) instead of trying to distill an eight-hour television show into a 108-minute movie.

Almost remarkably, nearly all the salient points are there, but most of the characterization is gone and the careful parallelism and other structural concerns are completely haywire. For instance, spoilers the film retains two scenes where Arthur tells both Joan and Eileen a story about a couple making love in an elevator as an elevator man watches. This is linked to a scene near the end of the TV version where Arthur and Eileen are forced to make love in the presence of a hermit-like farmer (and, later in the scene, their reactions to the experience). However, this critical scene, indeed the entire sequence, is missing from the film version, one absolutely vital as it shows Eileen's strength, cold determination to survive, and her own mental breakdown under the strain.

Worse, the careful doppelganger / parallelism of Joan and Eileen, and of Arthur and the Accordion Man, have been all but scrapped. Joan becomes a completely unsympathetic psycho, while the Accordion Man becomes (mostly for his lack of screentime) an apparently unrepentant murderer. Some of the TV characters, such as pimp Tom (played in the film version by Christopher Walken), are introduced then abruptly disappear. Others have vanished altogether.

In boiling the story down to its bare essentials, the film version becomes much too literal. When the Accordion Man sings the song "Pennies from Heaven," he does so in front of a GIANT collage of Depression era photographs of the destitute. The film opens with a long crane type shot looking across a warm, sunny sky, only to move down below the cloud line into a world of darkness and rain. And several shots too explicitly evoke the paintings of Edward Hopper (most obviously his Nighthawks) and other Depression era artists.

Generally though, the film lavishly and sincerely attempts to support its writer with exquisite set design (by Philip Harrison, Bernie Cutler, and Fred Tuch, supervised by producer Ken Adam) and cinematography (by the great Gordon Willis). Though not as oppressively bleak as the TV version, the movie of Pennies from Heaven does capture in many ways the look of the period.

The musical numbers, director and former choreographer Herbert Ross's forte, are far more elaborate than the TV version, and more directly reference the style and look of the RKO / Astaire-Rogers and Warner Bros. / Busby Berkeley musicals of that era. (Martin and Peters even mimic the dancing of Astaire and Rogers' "Let's Face the Music and Dance," a number not in the TV version.) However, too much emphasis is put on the dancing that, though impeccably done by Martin, Peters, and especially Walken, come at the expense of the songs' lyrics. In this way the film resembles Ken Russell's The Boy Friend (1971) more than anything in the TV Pennies from Heaven.

Martin, initially regarded (much to his dismay) as an heir apparent to Jerry Lewis, was brave to take on such a complex, demanding role at this point in his career, though he's not up to the task acting-wise. Both the script and Martin himself soften the character up when Arthur should be crude, selfish, and reprehensible. He should be crass and vulgar, but Martin plays him wide-eyed and dreamy. A telling comparison is the scene in both versions where Arthur and Eileen smash the records in Arthur's ill-fated record shop. Gone from the film version is the catharsis, a venting of underlying frustration at the world and terrible self-loathing.

Both Peters and Harper, given their similar performances, seem to be victims of bad direction. With mostly disemboweled parts, both adopt the arch solemnity of Bergman (or maybe a parody of Woody Allen doing Bergman): expressionless, antiseptic, their faces seem paralyzed most of the time. Only Christopher Walken, in the type of part in which he soon would be typecast, comes off well.

Video & Audio

Warner Home Video's DVD of Pennies from Heaven does justice to Gordon Willis's impressive cinematography. The 16:9 enhanced disc, in 1.85:1 format, looks very good for its era, with only dissolves and other process shots looking grainy in that early-'80s film stock way. Most of the time the image looks clean and sharp with good color. The music mixes period recordings with latterly recorded arrangements by Marvin Hamlisch, but the soundtrack is okay mono only. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.

Extra Features

Though lacking the usual trailer, Warner's DVD of Pennies from Heaven has two invaluable extras. The first is a Screen-Specific Commentary by Peter Rainer, which thankfully has a "skip-ahead" feature allowing listeners to zip past long stretches of silence. (This function has been used before, on DVDs such as Mister Roberts and Ben-Hur, and could be applied more frequently.) Rainer's comments are supplemented with a 20th Anniversary Cast & Crew Reunion, a post-screening discussion of the film hosted by Rainer and featuring Steve Martin, Jessica Harper, co-art director Bernie Cutler, costume designer Bob Mackie, editor Richard Marks, co-producer David Chasman, and executive producer Rick McCallum (who did several other Dennis Potter films before turning his attentions to Star Wars). The 35-minute program was shot on amateur video, and at one point someone even gets out of their seat and blocks the camera.

Parting Thoughts

At a time when American cinema was past its growth spurt of the late-'60s/early-'70s, and well into its high concept hit mentality, that Pennies from Heaven would be attempted by a Hollywood studio at all is remarkable, that it would be given the budget and obvious care and artistry needed to bring it to the screen is even more amazing. But it was really an impossible task. Though the movie often hints at greatness, television was still the best medium for the material.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.

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