Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
Arthur: I know it sounds daft Eileen, but I want to live in a world where the songs …
Eileen: Where the songs come true.
It’s no surprise by now that I love musicals, and especially musicals from the golden age of movies. The musicals made during the Depression, though, are the ones that fascinate me the most. The chasm between the grim hardships of real life and the frivolous, ultra-glamorous world of the musical is just amazing. Never do these movies acknowledge the real world—and why should they? They were made to be total escapism, to lift people out of the doldrums of an incredibly weary world.
So what happens when a film combines the grim and glamorous worlds of the Depression? You get Pennies from Heaven (1981), a dark yet strangely wonderful musical that marries these worlds in a pretty ingenious way. Each character in the story, set in Depression-era Chicago, fantasizes about having the life that Hollywood and the songs of the time promise them, in glitzy musical numbers with happy outcomes. The juxtaposition of the two worlds is absolutely mesmerizing—just when things are at their blackest, you’re jolted into a happy world with men in tuxes, women in gorgeous gowns, and scads of tap-dancing girls dripping with sequins. It sounds crazy, but it works.
The story centers around Arthur (Steve Martin), a sheet-music salesman who wants to believe everything in the happy songs he sells. His real life is anything but a musical, though—he’s got a drab job and is stuck in a miserable marriage to a drab little woman. Yet he has a dream of opening up his own music store. He goes to the bank for a loan, where he fantasizes he gets it in a huge musical number of the song, “Yes, Yes!” But the bank manager really says, “No, no.”
One day on a sales call he meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a prim and proper, but gorgeous schoolteacher. (Another fantasy number of him singing “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”) Arthur sweet-talks her into having an affair with him; Eileen finally relents, and ends up falling head over heels for him, in her own fantasy sequence of “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You.”
Eileen also ends up pregnant and loses her job. Meanwhile, Arthur’s wife, desperate to keep him, promises to give him the money he needs for the store from an inheritance she has squirreled away. Not wanting to screw up his dream, Arthur gives Eileen a fake address and ditches her.
Without a job or a husband, and with nowhere to go, Eileen wanders into a bar and meets Tom, a snazzy pimp (Christopher Walken) who is willing to help her. Eileen is attracted to his bad-guy ways, and fantasizes Tom singing “Let’s Misbehave” to her. (Christopher Walken’s dance/strip in this number is the absolute highlight of the movie.)
Of course, his help comes with a hefty price tag—he’ll get her out of trouble if she goes to work for him. With no other way out, she agrees.
Arthur runs into Eileen (now called Lulu) some time later and is shocked to find her working as a prostitute. He got that store he always wanted, but it’s a stunning failure. Both with ruined lives, Arthur decides they need to run away together and start all over. Eileen agrees, and off they go—but not before destroying his store.
It seems that Arthur and Eileen are going to get their Hollywood ending, but Arthur’s chance encounter with a hobo who has murdered a young blind girl leads Arthur to be wrongly convicted for the crime. As he stands on the gallows waiting to be hanged, he has one last fantasy—he and Eileen dancing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ famous “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sequence.
And in Arthur’s mind, his dream does come true, set to the song “The Glory of Love.” As Arthur says to Eileen, “We’ve worked too hard not to have a happy ending.”
The music—all vintage recordings lip-synched by the cast—is inserted into the story seamlessly, and chosen perfectly for each character—Arthur’s wife singing “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” when she thinks he’s having an affair; Eileen singing “I Want to Be Bad;” and the hobo doing an amazing softshoe to “Pennies from Heaven.” And the contrast the music makes between the two worlds is startling, sometimes even brutal, but it all works in a completely engrossing way.
Pennies from Heaven is a movie of contrasts—it’s a musical and a drama; it’s dazzling and gritty, funny and heartbreaking. It leaves you emotionally drained, but somehow strangely uplifted. An unusual movie, to be sure, but one not to be missed.
Our meal this week is as rich and complex as our movie (but not complex in preparation, I promise!). So whip up this amazing roast, queue up the movie, and get ready for a delicious evening!
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cooking for Two by Ellen Brown