By Kyle Turner
I have a strange soft spot for incredibly cynical movie musicals; films that deconstruct the very idealism that the genre set out to peddle. From a deep appreciation of Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, to an abiding love for Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, to even tolerance for Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!– such disillusionment gives me a strange sense of pleasure. Maybe it’s because I’m slightly (ha) cynical myself, but there has to be a certain ambition to use a genre that is often associated with blind joy and subvert those very notions. That isn’t to say I don’t love a happy musical by any means (Singin’ in the Rain is celluloid joy), it’s just more interesting when a genre film is unusually, and thanklessly, honest about its subject matter.
Such is Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (1981), a film that is both deeply jaded and yet incredibly frank about its emotions, essentially becoming a commentary on escapism and the painful compromise between reality and fantasy.
Based on Dennis Potter’s 1978 BBC miniseries, Pennies from Heaven could almost be considered a spiritual predecessor to Woody Allen’s 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo: both films are set in Depression-era metropolises (Chicago and New York, respectively), both are fairly uncompromising in their cynical world view, and both have a paradoxical relationship with The Movies. (Oh, and both feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.) But while Allen’s film is arguably more distanced from its commentary, Ross becomes very confrontational about delusion and reality.
When sad sack Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is denied a loan from the bank to help his business, the scene abruptly transitions into a musical number called “Yes Yes!” The framing, the camera movements, and, most obviously, the sets become more overtly artificial, accentuating a fantasy world that Parker has created in his mind. The big dance number, with many a hoofer in line, calls back to the outlandishly scaled dance scenes in the stuff of Busby Berkeley and Ernst Lubitsch. The fact that every song in the film is lip synched stresses this artifice and this fantasy.
Pennies from Heaven was hardly the first, or the last, film to use its musical numbers as a distance from reality, but it is one of the few films that focuses on how ridiculous such pipe dreams are, and yet very carefully maintains each characters’ dignity without stooping to mock them. Yes, the audience gets the juxtaposition of a lavish musical number after being rejected, but however misanthropic it feels on a superficial level, there is a level and layer of desperation.
That desperation isn’t limited to Parker, as the object of his affection, a young school teacher turned prostitute Eileen (Bernadette Peters) experiences similar fantasies. It’s telling, though, that throughout the film, Peters’ performance seems mousy, reticent, and modest. Perhaps one could even argue that Eileen the Schoolteacher, specifically, seems nearly withdrawn due to her personal miseries. But on stage and in the spectacular numbers she’s in (even in such minimalist numbers like the trio rendition “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries”), she inhabits a sexier, showgirly character, also emulating a kewpie doll facial expression. Thus, Ross makes it clear that the musical sequences aren’t mere fantasies of what could be or what these characters want, but full on projections of themselves and their situations, directly at odds with reality. The desire to make these projections come true fluctuates with Parker and Eileen in terms of how to do it, but it makes such yearning painful and palpable.
The discrepancy between reality and the movies is clearest when the film addresses its subject matter, which is wobbly in terms of how fluidly the exposition works. But having Martin express his displeasure at the fakery of love songs numerous times somehow works without being heavy handed. It might be because these characters, regardless of how terrible these situations are, refuse to acknowledge the reality of their situation. They accept that everything is artifice, and the next step from jadedness is delusion. Though I balked at the introduction of the “impulsive love” trope, Ross and Potter cleverly subvert it, being pointed about how ridiculous it is. Parker’s pursuit of Eileen is creepy and never really very charming (intentionally), but his fundamental feelings are never subject to scorn. It’s a tricky balance that is done exquisitely.
Fred Astaire’s protestations against the film (he hated it) feel a bit silly: calling it vulgar at every turn and saying that the time was “innocent”. The point of the film is that scarcely anything is innocent. Our emotions might be the closest thing to come to that, but even then they can give way to seediness. The declaration that any era is “innocent” is subverted as well, as life is full of the very nuance and complexity that some films– sometimes through no fault of their own– refuse to show.
Pennies from Heaven is at times breathtakingly enjoyable, every set beautifully ornate, but its emotional impact is crucial as it gets to the heart of what a cynic is: a disappointed romantic.