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Herbert Ross
Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper, Vernel Bagneris, John McMartin, John Karlen, Jay Garner
Writing Credits:
Dennis Potter

There's a world on both sides of the rainbow where songs come true and every time it rains, it rains ...

During the Great Depression, a married sheet-music salesman falls in love with another woman and uses cheery songs from that era to imagine a better life for himself.

Box Office:
$22 million.
Domestic Gross
$3.600 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Monaural

Runtime: 107 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 7/27/2004

• Scene-specific audio Commentary with Film Critic Peter Rainer
• 20th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Pennies From Heaven (1981)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 13, 2004)

Since Pennies From Heaven came as Steve Martinís first starring role since 1979ís The Jerk, audiences expected more of the same. They didnít get it, which was why Pennies tanked so badly at the box office.

I saw Pennies as a teen during its initial release, and I absolutely adored it. Why? That I couldnít tell you. It bowled me over as a kid but I canít remember the specifics of what impressed me so much about it.

Have the intervening years treated the flick well? Reasonably so, for although Pennies didnít dazzle me at 37 as much as it did at 14, it remained a creative, unusual and intriguing experience.

Set in the Depression-era Chicago of 1934, we meet sheet music salesman Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) and his wife Joan (Jessica Harper). She never wants to have sex, which leaves Arthur frustrated. He wants to expand into more lucrative sales territory but canít afford it. Joan has a stash of money she inherited from her father, but she refuses to access it to help Arthur, as she wants to save it for ďold ageĒ.

Disheartened, Arthur leaves for a sales trip and threatens never to return. Along the way, he meets an accordion-playing hitchhiker (Vernel Bagneris) and also sees a teacher named Eileen Everson (Bernadette Peters) at a music store. Arthur immediately falls for Eileen, which prompts him to find her house, go there, and declare his love for her. She sends him away but seems smitten as well.

Eventually Eileen agrees to see Arthur, who promises not to lie to the tender and fragile woman but who immediately fibs about his marital status. After this fling, Arthur goes home to Joan. She feared he really wouldnít come back, so she promises to try harder to please him, and she also agrees to let Arthur use her money to open a record store. It doesnít do well, and Eileen also fares poorly. She gets pregnant, which causes her to lose her teaching job.

Arthur bops back and forth between Joan and Eileen, and we see the negative effects on their personalities. Eileen gets an abortion and becomes rather bitter and jaded. She eventually starts to turn tricks, though she continues to hope for a life with Arthur. This gets tougher when he becomes a suspect in the murder of a blind girl (Eliska Krupka) he briefly met. The rest of the film follows the love triangle as well as Arthurís criminal prosecution.

Not only did Pennies undermine the expectations of those who expected more Wild and Crazy Steve Martin, but also it subverted the usual portrayal of musicals. Despite some outwardly joyful sequences, the tone remains melancholy at best. The production numbers break the depression in an ironic way, as they function mainly to spotlight the sadness and desperation of the charactersí lives. They indulge in fantasy depictions of bright, sunny tunes to depart from reality, which accentuates their desperate states.

This works, and it helps make the movie seem even darker than it otherwise might. Make no mistake: Pennies presents a harsh scenario. Its grimness and the incongruity clearly will turn off many viewers, but they make the film more memorable in the long run.

For the most part, the actors live up to their part of the bargain, though I think Martinís performance comes as a disappointment. Some of that stems from the work by Peters and Harper, both of whom thoroughly outdo Martin. Actually, in an odd way, Martin feels most at home in the format, as his performance seems like one more classically taken from a Thirties musical, whereas Harper and Peters come across as more modern.

Unfortunately, this creates a disconnect that makes Martinís work appear somewhat cartoony and without real depth. The film depicts Arthur as a rather unlikable character. While he presents the stereotypical movie musical dreamer, he also treats women cruelly and cavalierly and doesnít demonstrate much interest in the feelings of others. Martin presents such a moony performance that he largely negates Arthurís negatives, unfortunately. He seems too concerned with making the character personable and doesnít allow us to take in Arthurís flaws well.

On the other hand, Harper and especially Peters shine in their roles. I never much cared for Peters, as I always thought she presented an annoying little-girl-in-a-womanís-body personality. However, she proves dynamic in Pennies. She really delves into the characterís emotions and creates a full-blooded person. Eileen goes through many changes during the film, and Peters moves across these effortlessly and convincingly.

Odd and occasionally off-putting, Pennies from Heaven will never maintain more than a cult audience. However, it manages to put something genuinely unusual on the screen, and it does so successfully more often than not. An intriguing variation on the traditional movie musical, Pennies presents a good piece of work.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

Pennies from Heaven appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the movie occasionally showed its age, it mostly presented a nice transfer.

Sharpness seemed quite good. A smidgen of softness occasionally showed up in wide shots, but those instances were infrequent. Instead, the film largely looked detailed and concise. I saw no jagged edges or shimmering, and only a wee bit of edge enhancement popped up at times. Print flaws caused a few distractions but didnít appear too bad. Grain looked somewhat heavy at times, and I saw periodic examples of specks and marks, but the majority of the flick looked clean.

Pennies presented a fairly naturalistic palette, which came as a bit of a surprise. I guess I figured a flick with so many production numbers would shoot for a livelier look, at least in those sequences. Instead, Pennies kept things bright but realistic. In any case, the colors were tight and pretty dynamic. The hues consistently looked smooth and well-depicted. Blacks seemed acceptable, but they appeared a bit inky at times. Shadows were clean and appropriately visible. Ultimately, the picture quality of Pennies seemed satisfying.

While nothing special, the monaural soundtrack of Pennies from Heaven was also more than acceptable for a product of its era. Speech occasionally sounded a little dense, but the lines mostly came across as natural and distinctive, and I noticed no edginess or issues with intelligibility. Effects played a small role in the flick. They sounded appropriately accurate and clean, though, and lacked any distortion or other flaws.

Music varied dependent on the source. Much of the film presented period recordings from the Thirties, so these displayed limited range as well as source flaws. Nonetheless, they came across as acceptable given their limitations, and the flickís score was fairly vivid. Some decent bass response popped up at times as well, and this ended up as a pretty acceptable mix.

As for extras, we start with an audio commentary from film critic Peter Rainer. This presents the information as it runs with the movie, but to skip dead spots, keep an eye out for a penny icon; when it appears, jump to the next chapter. This format led me to fear the commentary wouldnít cover much of the film, but it actually fills roughly 79 of Heavenís 107 minutes.

Does it do so well? To a moderate degree, for Rainer adds some good notes but not enough to make this a great track. He gets into comparisons with other movie musicals and trends in the genre as a whole and also places Heaven in its period context. He discusses the performers and their work along with notes about prior efforts; the change of pace Heaven represented for Steve Martin receives particular attention. We learn a little about the music, the staging, and the themes and symbolism as well as the flickís reception and legacy. All of this probably sounds better on paper than it did in reality, for I think the commentary seems decent but not much more than that. Still, it adds enough useful information to merit a listen.

For the other supplement, we find a 20th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion. This comes from a retrospective screening of the film and includes a panel with actors Steve Martin and Jessica Harper, art director Bernie Cutler, costume designer Bob Mackie, editor Richard Marks, producer David Chasman and executive producer Rick McCallum. The program lasts 35 minutes and 40 seconds as it covers a mix of subjects. We learn about the approaches the actors took to the film, its visual look and inspirations, creating period costumes, editing challenges, reflections on writer Dennis Potter, a poor test screening and other reactions, and the mood on the set. The program offers a reasonably good look at the production and its history, but it doesnít substitute for a real documentary. This means we get some nice notes at times but the whole thing fails to coalesce and provide a concise discussion.

A commercial failure and a generally forgotten part of the Steve Martin catalog, Pennies from Heaven subverts the traditional movie musical in interesting ways. It offers an entertainingly dark and creative look at its topic. The DVD features good picture plus decent audio and a couple of generally useful supplements. While not for everyone, Pennies merits my recommendation.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.3125 Stars Number of Votes: 16
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