June 20: Junesploitation’s topic of the day — as suggested by F This Movie — is musicals!
For the exact same reasons why I find Pennies from Heaven to be a success, I can see why it failed at the box office.
Pennies from Heaven was Steve Martin’s first dramatic role in a film. After watching the original BBC miniseries, he was convinced that it was the greatest thing he’d ever seen. So he learned how to tap dance and chose the film to follow up The Jerk.
He’d later tell Rolling Stone, “I’m disappointed that it didn’t open as a blockbuster and I don’t know what’s to blame, other than it’s me and not a comedy. I must say that the people who get the movie, in general, have been wise and intelligent; the people who don’t get it are ignorant scum.”
He also told the Chicago Tribune “Everything I had done until that time had been wildly successful so that the commercial failure of the film caught me by surprise.”
But yeah. He also would tell the BBC at one point that you don’t follow up The Jerk with this movie.
During the Great Depression, Chicago sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Martin) struggles in his business and in his marriage to Joan (Jessica Harper*), who refuses to give him any money to start his own business. His dream is to live in the world of the songs that he writes, which leads him to wander for a while. During this time, he meets a schoolteacher named Eileen (Bernadette Peters) and falls in love with her, but he soon returns to his wife.
The affair has led to a pregnancy and Eileen loses her job. After an abortion, she becomes Lulu, a lady of the night in the employee of a pimp named Tom (Christopher Walken). Yet when they find each other again, Arthur and Lulu remember their love and run away after destroying his store.
It all falls apart when a girl is assaulted and killed, with Arthur suspected and his wife telling the police that he’s perverted. He’s arrested and goes to death row, but his fantasy life takes over, as he sings “Pennies from Heaven” on the gallows. The film closes with him telling Lulu, “We couldn’t have gone through all that without a happy ending. Songs ain’t like that, are they?”
At one point in the film, Arthur and Eileen go to see the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie Follow the Fleet and then become part of the movie and dance through “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” In Astaire, The Biography, Fred Astaire would say, “I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar… it makes you cry it’s so distasteful.” However, it has been reported that he liked Walken’s dancing.
Director Herbert Ross recovered from this movie bombing and made Footloose, The Secret of My Success, Steel Magnolia, Boys on the Side and many more films. Dennis Potter, who wrote the BBC series and this film, would go on to write Gorky Park and The Singing Detective.
You know who was a fan of this movie? Anton LaVey. It appears on the Church of Satan film list and Dr. LaVey went on record saying, “The sets and the characters were 100% authentic.”
*Do you think Ms. Harper ever thinks to herself, “Between Suspiria, Phantom of the Paradise and Shock Treatment, do you think that I can maybe not be in a cult musical movie and maybe something that could get me rich?”
I love the movie, but thought Martin was miscasted. He is not “in character,” like Peters and Harper. I’ve seen bits and pieces of the BBC TV series, and Bob Hoskins was much better as the salesman.