Wow! I have a new favorite movie, which is not something that happens very often these days. Pennies From Heaven is not my all-time favorite, which would have to be Vertigo, but it is definitely up in the top 20. Although I am a big fan of British TV series, I have not gotten around to the 1978 program written by Dennis Potter that this was based on, so can’t compare the film to the series, but I absolutely loved this.
Steve Martin plays Arthur, a traveling salesman specializing in sheet music in Depression-era Chicago. Arthur thinks that his ability to pick what songs will be hits will make him a big success. But unfortunately there is a big gap between his ambitious and his actual situation, as his wife doesn’t share his level of passion and the bank won’t give him the loan he wants to expand his business. He copes by retreating into the fantasy world created by the lyrics of the Tin Pan Alley songs he loves so much. The worlds of fantasy and reality come crashing together when the police want him for a murder he didn’t commit, but he still has a his songs to pull him through.
This is not a musical in the traditional sense, as Martin and company only lip sync, in the most exaggerated way imaginable, to period recordings from the ’20s and ’30s, but it somehow all seems to fall together. Bernadette Peters, who plays the shy school teacher Arthur meets on his sales route, is as excellent as everything she was in in those days, and really has the right look for the period, resembling the ’20s “boo boop de doo” girl Helen Kane, whose song “I Want to be Bad” is covered. Steve Martin can dance surprisingly well, and Christopher Walken’s all-too-brief bartop tap dance number has to be the best dance sequence in a film since Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain.