"I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They didn't realize that the '30s were a very innocent age, and that it should have been set in the eighties – it was just froth; it makes you cry it's so distasteful." That was Fred Astaire's take on 1981's Pennies From Heaven, today's entry in My Year Of Flops.
The '30s were indeed an idyllic time when white men didn't have to worry about sharing the same water fountains as African-Americans or working alongside dizzy dames at the office. It was an innocent, blissful era of Jim Crow, lynching and widespread institutional racism and sexism, a bygone era where a whimsical chap named Hitler got tongues a-wagging over in Germany and, as Our Dumb Century reminds us, all America had to fear was fear itself, a crippling, interminable Depression, and the specter of Hitler and Stalin splitting up Europe into two discrete kingdoms.
It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about all the dewy innocence Pennies corrupted. Of course the '30s were a time of innocence and escapism for Astaire-Rogers musicals precisely because life was so miserable outside the movie theater. Astaire made a fortune selling upscale fantasies to people beaten down by the Depression. He had a vested interest in making sure the shimmering dream world of '30s musicals wasn't invaded by the harsh light of socio-economic reality.
Pennies From Heaven has a better critical reputation than the vast majority of films I've written about here, but in the grand tradition of epic flops, it still found a way to make just about everyone unhappy, especially the people behind the legendary British miniseries that inspired it. In a strange way, the American Pennies both usurped and was usurped by its British counterpart. The endless accolades that greeted the limey Pennies ensured that the American version would forever be considered inferior, but the corporate muscle of MGM kept the English miniseries from being seen for a full decade.
In a rather Kafkaesque sequence of events, Dennis Potter was forced to pay $1000 to the BBC for the copyright to his own work. He was then put through the ringer, turning out thirteen drafts of the script. Of course, given the film's pitch-black tone, I have to wonder if a fat-fingered studio executive bellowed "Darker! Darker! There's still a tiny little glimmer of hope in the last draft that must be extinguished! This is a musical, dammit! I want people to go home sobbing!" upon receiving each successive draft.
Potter cultists were infuriated that MGM's remake took the original miniseries out of circulation until 1990 and didn't ask original stars Bob Hoskins and Cheryl Campbell to reprise their critically-revered roles. MGM was horrified that the film grossed only a fraction of its bloated $22 million budget. The film's three Oscar nominations must have provided little comfort. Heaven scored the Best Screenplay nomination that generally goes to challenging, innovative, and edgy films the sleepy old dinosaurs that make up The Academy lack the testicular fortitude to festoon with nominations in bigger categories. True to form, Heaven lost to the revolutionary trend-setter that is On Golden Pond.
Heaven bravely cast Steve Martin in his first dramatic role. Even more audaciously, it cast him as largely unsympathetic character. We Americans treasure our delusions. There's something downright un-American about the notion that you can doggedly pursue your dreams, follow your heart, believe deeply and truly in the transformative powers of music and love, and still end up in a hangman's noose for a crime you didn't commit. And we like our dreamers pure-hearted and true, not sleazy, sordid, and ruled by sex and greed like Martin's sad little schemer.
In a revelatory lead performance, Martin here plays a sheet-music salesman trapped in a loveless marriage with sour-faced scold Jessica Harper, a glowering, bible-thumping puritan who probably views even eyes-closed missionary sex between married adults as a shameful perversion punishable by an eternity of hellfire. To escape a barren home life and a career sputtering head-long into Nowheresville, Martin frequently breaks into giddy, kinetic fantasy sequences where he lip-synchs to Tin Pan Alley ditties and cavorts his way through production numbers worthy of MGM's legendary Freed Unit.
There's something disconcerting and strained about plastic smiles and speed-fueled peppiness of dancers in old musicals, a forced bonhomie that's borderline creepy. Pennies brilliantly exploits that blatantly artificial pep in queasy, disquieting ways. There's similarly something haunting and weird about the pop and crackle of ancient recordings where dead voices gather to obliviously espouse long-forgotten hopes and dreams. There's a reason creepy old records playing at unexpected intervals are a horror-film staple.
While making his rounds one day, Martin becomes fixated on sad-eyed schoolteacher Bernadette Peters, whose rag-doll vulnerability has never been more poignant. When Martin inadvertently lets slip that he's married he tries to recover by pretending that his "wife" died in a tragic motorcycle accident while zealously pawing at Peters. Martin blithely tries to transform a potentially fatal verbal gaffe into a mercy fuck. Surely no woman would be hard-hearted enough to reject the sexual advances of a man still mourning his wife's horrific death, right?
Martin's sexual fantasies are as tawdry and sad as the rest of his existence. He pressures a clearly mortified Harper into putting lipstick on her nipples in a subplot as agonizing, brutal, and uncomfortably voyeuristic as anything in Todd Solondz's oeuvre. But his most cherished sexual fantasy involves paying an elevator operator $20 to look the other way while he and a game little minx have naughty semi-public sex. Pennies has the unmitigated gall to suggest that under the coy double entendres, moony romanticism, and sly one-liners in the clamorous ditties of olden times lies an animal hunger for sex that Martin plays to the hilt.
Pennies begins with Martin in a state of despair that only intensifies as the movie progresses. Martin achieves his dream of opening a record store only to watch it die an unmourned death. Peters becomes pregnant, gets an abortion, and sinks into prostitution at the behest of Christopher Walken's tap-dancing pimp. And while there is no sweeter phrase in the English language than "Christopher Walken's tap-dancing pimp," I actually prefer Verner Bagneris' otherworldly solo to the title song to Walken's rightfully revered strip-tease tap-dance to "Let's Mishehave."
In the "Pennies From Heaven" number, Bagneris' accordion-playing murderer moves with otherworldly grace, his impossibly long limbs moving slowly and strangely, as if underwater. He begins the song amidst the grim faces and permanent frowns of the dispirited rabble at a rundown diner before launching into a fantasy world where shimmering pennies rain down from the heavens like gilded manna.
Walken manages to make an unforgettable impression in just a single scene. Pennies is fundamentally about the conflict between illusion and reality and the dual nature of escapism. Watching Astaire and Rogers glide around a ballroom for two hours might help you forget you live in a shotgun shack for a while, but it also highlights the dispiriting chasm between the dreams Hollywood sells and the harsh realities of the movie-goers who buy them. Walken at first charms Peters with honeyed words, but when she recoils even a little he responds "You aren't a tease, are ya? Cause I'll cut ya face." with heart-stopping casualness. In that moment, the grim realities of prostitution become all too apparent. After a lifetime of being used and discarded by callous men, Peters reckons she might as well make a little money in the process.
Martin, meanwhile, ends up getting framed for Bagneris' murder of a blind girl. As the noose around Martin's neck tightens, the contrast between song and dance numbers and Martin's unbearably grim life grows smaller and smaller until Martin is talk-singing "Pennies From Heaven," accompanied by a ghostly unseen banjo through tears as he awaits his imminent execution. Pennies plays up the impossible gulf between the shimmering fantasy worlds created by Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, and the Freed unit, and the sobering realities of life among the suffering lower classes for maximum heartbreak. Late in the film, Martin blurs that line completely by first singing along with Astaire's celluloid image in a movie theater, then leaping boldly into the frame with Peters. Astaire must have felt honored. I love musicals, but I also love Heaven's merciless deconstruction of the genre. It gets under my skin and haunts my psyche anew with each viewing.
Heaven indelibly illustrates the truth of Noel Coward's famous line about it being "Extraordinary how potent cheap music is," a quip that could double as Potter's epitaph. But don't take my word for it. Here's Martin's wholly unbiased take on the film's defenders and critics: "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."
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success