Pennies From Heaven - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Pennies From Heaven Reviews

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Super Reviewer
½ July 13, 2011
Based off of the titular BBC miniseries from several years prior, this American production features Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in the lead roles. The film features dozens of iconic songs from the thirties and forties, several backgrounds painted from the original thirties musicals, and huge numbers akin to the heyday of MGM. Throughout the film the actors lip sync to the iconic singing of people like Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, The Boswell Sisters, and Ruby Vallee. Though the actors in this film do not sing, they are very talented performers. Steve Martin learned tap dancing for six months in preparation, Peters is a Broadway mainstay, and Christopher Walken had been trained in tap dancing prior, giving one of the more astounding performances of his career. The story follows Martin as music sheet salesman Arthur as he cheats on his wife, runs from the cops, and tries to find happiness in Depression Era America. The story is pretty grim, making Arthur's fantasies that much more heartbreaking. The juxtaposition illustrates that musical numbers really are fantasies in and of themselves, and the people going to see musicals during the Depression were trying to escape their disparity and poverty. Astaire reportedly hated this film because he believed that this period was innocent, and showing its realities was tawdry. In reality, this film was eye opening, and beautiful in its assessment of true life.
Super Reviewer
August 16, 2011
People trying to escape to a fantasy world where songs make up for the harsh reality they live in is a subject I find utterly appealing, even more if there is a lively, playful mastermind behind it to inject a good measure of black humour to the mix. Too bad Dennis Potter's amazing writing wasn't adapted to the silver screen by an equally sharp mind. But I pass things like that because I love the period, Gordon Willis' lightning and the lovely tunes. Also, Christopher Walken shows what a great dancer he is.
Super Reviewer
May 26, 2008
As fun as the musical numbers are, there is some very dark drama in this movie. I liked how everyone lip-syncs to the actual songs recorded in the 1930s. Here Steve Martin shows what a good actor he is as well as a dancer. Christopher Walken strip-teaseling to "Lets Misbehave" then telling Bernadette Peters "You'd better not be a tease . . . cause I'll cut your face" is a great scene. I can't speak to this being better than the original miniseries because I haven't seen it, but this film on its own is very good.
Super Reviewer
January 31, 2007
The most depressing musical of all time. Easy 5 stars.
I wonder if Lars Von Trier saw this?
August 2, 2015
A really well made musical movie with a great performance from Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. The music, art direction, costumes, and writing are all really great as well
August 2, 2015
This movie deserves to be re-released. The lavish artificial spectacle "innocence" of the 30's only makes sense when you see it in the context of real desperation of the times. This movie does that beautifully. The lip-synching of real hits of the period make it more poignant, more sad, more real. These were real songs that were popular. This is how and why the Depression era was able to embrace the fantasies of the overly fantastic excesses of Hollywood. I can't believe I have missed this movie until now. I love musicals and I vaguely remembered that bad reviews - I had no idea this perfect movie was what I was missing. Of course the reviewers of the lavish 80's could not fathom these themes. (Now, post-recession, look how we consume fantasies - albeit superheroes instead of Busby musicals - but is it all that different?)
Oh, and STEVE MARTIN IS TERRIFIC IN THIS!
December 27, 2013
An aggravating, snappy, and dark musical starring a lip-syncing Steve Martin that violently aches for the days of Astaire via a tap dancing Christopher Walken.
March 16, 2013
It's a girl that makes you happy and it is a girl that makes you blue.

During the 1930s depression in Chicago, Arthur struggles as a salesman of records. He is also unhappily married and one random day stumbles into a desperate woman. They have sex and fall in love. The struggling woman eventually needs to resort to prostitution to make ends meet. Can Arthur and the woman form a life together on little or no income or will the state of the country rip them apart?

"You aren't a tease, are you?"
"A tease?"
"Cause I'll cut your face."

Herbert Ross, director of Steel Magnolias, Footloose, True Colors, The Sunshine Boys, Funny Lady, and The Secret of my Suce$s, delivers Pennies from Heaven. The storyline for this picture is okay and reminded me a little of Punchline. You can tell the story can go in a lot of directions, but all inclinations is that it isn't going to go well. The acting is very good and the cast includes Steve Martin, Christopher Walken, Jessica Harper, Bernadette Peters, and Vernel Bagneris.

"You want a nice time, honey?"
"No, I like feeling miserable."

I recently DVR'd this picture off Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and found it unimpressive, long winded, with containing unneeded music numbers. I think the execution of this film could have been better. The acting was wonderful and the storyline had potential; but overall, this was a disappointment that I would skip.

"I want them to cut his thing off and bury it."

Grade: C+/B-
November 5, 2012
Bizarre movie...can't believe that I have not seen it until now. Steve Martin doesn't really work in his role...maybe because it is so close to The Jerk and seeing him opposite Bernadette Peters as a darker version of that movie's man-child is just too jarring. I did like the basic theme of sunny depression era songs contrasted with the squalor and vice of reality. Dancing was outstanding...especially Christopher Walken's perverse tap dance strip tease. Well worth watching, but definitely not "warm-hearted", as the Netflix sleeve described it (or "black and white" either).
½ September 27, 2012
Ambitious but tonally confusing musical sets a glitzy cornerstone to Steve Martin's career-spanning exploration of a cynical, referential existentialism.
July 30, 2012
I can't help but wonder if this movie would fare well if it were re-released. Coming so early in Steve Martin's career, it's dark subject matter was probably quite unexpected to fans of The Jerk and his other comedies.
June 12, 2012
Unique, unusual and hella-depressing. I've never used the word "hella" in a review before now, but it's applicable here, as a means of emphasis. Anyway. Good movie, but upsetting.
½ December 30, 2010
Dec 2010 - This is a very interesting musical. The story is not that interesting but the style and how the music gets integrated into the movie makes it very thrilling. Steve Martin does a very good job and he clearly became a jerk in various parts of the movie.
½ January 3, 2010
(note: the facebook description of the film is entirely wrong.)


I have not seen the original BBC show of the same name, where Bob Hoskins played Arthur, the music salesman, a person who "believes in a world, where the songs come true", whatever that means...

The series, I'm told, brilliantly contrasts two sides of the social coin: hopelessly twisted and idealistic Brits whose lives are on a crash course to tragedy, and their bizarre, Brechtian musical moments, where the characters start lip-syncing and miming to period recordings of pop songs of the 1930s and such.

Already, the idea is somewhat fickle, at least, from an American standpoint. Musicals in the depression were very much aware of this dichotomy, and the audience wasn't stupid. This is why they went to seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Busby Berkeley numbers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell; it was the "dream factory", after all.

All these themes of misogyny, sex lives, poverty, murder, and the like, were not new to audiences, even during the 30s. This is where, I think, the movie adaptation spectacularly fails: you have the big problem of cultural gaps (British and American depressions...), and the biggest one of all, American movie musicals, something unique to the country.

What explains the musical's ever-lasting appeal? (despite naysayers being buzz-kills). Those marvelously huge sets with art deco touches, the classy dancing, and the escapism...which IS necessary. Who wants to see two hours of gloom and cynicism which ultimately falls flat on its face?

In this film, Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, the music salesman, who is over-sexed and dominates his mousy wife played by Jessica Harper, who can't overcome him. (the infamous lip-stick nipples scene is as tasteless and cruel as ever. There have been some brutal sequences in film before, but this is just pointless. Okay, I'm done standing on my soap-box).

However, Arthur meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters, her Kewpie doll looks serving her well.) , a school teacher. He falls head over heels for her, because he believes in those songs, you know!? (Heavy-handed cannot even begin to describe this movie...)

Just to show how clever the writer (who is Dennis Potter, the original creator of the show. Hmmm...poison pen letter I presume?) and the movie makers are, they wish to end each musical fantasy, set in lavish sets and with hundreds of dancers, with emotional thuds, which renders the viewing of these scenes entirely pointless. Sure, the Astaire and Rogers musicals were light and bouncy, but they knew how to keep that story tied with those numbers.

Even then, the audiences back then knew the numbers were implausible, and that's the joy and wonder of it all.

Here, no such thing ever happens.

As Astaire, who watched this film, said, "Every scene was cheap and vulgar." I agree.

Eileen is essentially raped by Arthur (the scene is inexplicably played for cynical laughs. ???) and she is fired from her teaching job for getting pregnant (but not before she lip-syncs to LOVE IS GOOD FOR ANYTHING THAT AILS YOU, with a giant white colored set with her pupils all in white tuxedos and shorts, tapping away.)

Meanwhile, Arthur meets the "accordion man", a seemingly whimsical figure (again, a parody that turns deadly.) who lip-syncs to the title song in a shower of golden pennies in front of a giant mural of depression images in America. This actually works, sort of...except we find out that this man is a rapist and insane murder. Wha?

Perhaps the most tasteless and mind-numbing scene is where Arthur and Eileen go to the movies and watch Astaire and Rogers dance in FOLLOW THE FLEET...

(they perform the song, "Let's face the music and dance". I'm perplexed by this choice, since the number in the film was meant as a commentary on the depression, with the two characters actually contemplating suicide because of their lost earnings...is it meant to be ironic? Cloying? Suddenly sentimental? What is it meant to represent? This movie is all mixed up....)

...they suddenly imagine themselves inside the movie, instead now dancing with men in top hats and tuxedos and stuff. The number is symbolic of their "imprisonment", where the mens' canes seem to look like jail bars. This is not only heavy and not clever, but is so out of place, it even makes the lip-syncing gimmick seem elegant by comparison.

Eileen then becomes a prostitute (obviously (?)) and meets Christopher Walken who does a one scene-wonder as a charming pimp...almost. The musical number he does is amazing, but does not in any way, shape or form, make up for the rest of the film's agonizingly sloppy excesses. He taps and hoofs so well, you wonder why this film wasn't just made into a hard-luck story with retro-musical touches.

However, Walken disappears from the movie and the story reverts back to Eileen and Arthur, who has just been recently accused of the rape and murder of a blind girl whom he accidentally and innocently bumped into earlier.

Since the film has no care for its characters, plot, or anything (except for the lip-syncing gimmick, which is wasted too), I don't care if I spoil the film or anything.

Arthur is caught, wrongly accused, and hung. We don't see the hanging, but we instead see Arthur running off to Eileen under the train in Chicago. She is just as surprised as we are, but he assures her that...

"Whoever said you could stop a dream? We didn't go through all that without a happy ending. The songs ain't like that are they?"

Eileen joyfully embraces him and the film abruptly cuts to an army of chorus girls decked out in penny costumes and gold gloves, singing THE GLORY OF LOVE, bathed in gold and pink lights.

Arthur and Eileen sing to us, and the chorus girls continue to kick their heels and legs up in the air as the music hollowly reaches a climax.

It's sickening. We know that Arthur is actually dying and having this final fantasy in his head.

At the end, the contemporary audience is baffled, disappointed, but above all, insulted.

Never before has a film so utterly crumpled and died under its own weight of pretension and cynicism. There's a reason the musicals were invented. But not for this purpose.

Lars Von Trier tried the same deal with DANCER IN THE DARK. But who's kidding who? We only saw that film because Bjork actually sings and writes the songs. She is delightful. The film is not. Hmmm...the same could be said for the numbers in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN...

Take the dancing away, and you're left with waste, waste, waste...

Pauline Kael, sorry, as much as I enjoy your reviews, I can safely say that you must have been possessed by a bout of insanity to even remotely enjoy this film. (Then again, she always had odd moments of enjoyment and hate...)

*Sigh* Can no one make a retro-musical without being insincere?

Despite the luminous cinematography and set design, Herbert Ross seems to pace this film like a sack of rocks. Sometimes, getting dancers as your director is not the best idea. Everything is so ponderous; the film is literally hemorrhaging as you watch it.


Again, I go to you, Mr. Astaire,

"[...] it was just froth; it makes you cry it's so distasteful."
November 20, 2009
I give this one a high review for two things: Gordon Willis and Christopher Walken.

Willis flattens the space and creates depth. This is an amazing example of the parts being better than the whole.

If you're a fan of Dennis Potter, you may not be happy.

If you want to see where the Fatboy Slim video came from, look no further than Walken's dance number...
October 20, 2009
Pennies from Heaven (1981) Although I have not been watching musicals lately I am a sucker for most musicals. I even like Woody Allen's musical. Breaking Waves (von trier) is the most unusual musical I have ever seen. Pennies from Heaven has long been one of my all time favorite movies. In 1981 Dennis Potter adapted his own screenplay for a film of the same name for American audiences, with its setting changed to Depression era Chicago. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay. The film starred Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. The director was Herbert Ross and the choreographer was Danny Daniels. This was Steve Martin's first dramatic role. Potter is one unusual dude and I just ordered his singing detective series. He was also involved in one of my favorite films Antonia's Line. In 1930s Depression America, Arthur Parker, a sheet-music salesman, is having a hard time, both in his business and at home with his wife Joan. His business is failing and Joan is not amorous enough for Arthur and refuses to give him money to start his own business. His dream is to live in a world that is like the songs he tries to sell. In his travels, Arthur meets a shy, beautiful but plain school teacher, Eileen. Arthur expresses his instant attraction by lip-synching to the song "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking", as Eileen, converted to a brighter version of herself, dances. and so on and so on continues a fantasy fairy tale romance musical. It is bizarre and just enchanting. The lavish musical parts are such a contrast to the depression era setting of the film. Martin and Peters are just fantastic. Fred Astaire dissed the movie: "I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They don't realize that the thirties were a very innocent age". Herbert Ross and his creative team manage to bind all of the pieces together into one seamless collage of lost hope, forced optimism, and never-ending desperation. Gordon Willis' cinematography is never less than completely awe-inspiring, and the combined efforts of top-drawer art and set direction and Bob Mackie's seemingly authentic period costumes helps cement the look and feel of desolate decade that the film represents. Over all films in every genre, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a likely contender to receive my vote for the single most underrated film masterpiece of the last twenty years. ll the ratings on flixter--those people dont know what they are talking about. This movie was a box office bomb but has gained a lot of respect in the last 15 years. Steve Martin Stated about his own film: "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." ha ha ha ha ha my thought exactly!! Five stars. highest recommendation. On my big screen TV this was just FABULOUS...!!!
October 20, 2009
Pennies from Heaven (1981) Although I have not been watching musicals lately I am a sucker for most musicals. I even like Woody Allen's musical. Breaking Waves (von trier) is the most unusual musical I have ever seen. Pennies from Heaven has long been one of my all time favorite movies. In 1981 Dennis Potter adapted his own screenplay for a film of the same name for American audiences, with its setting changed to Depression era Chicago. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay. The film starred Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Christopher Walken. The director was Herbert Ross and the choreographer was Danny Daniels. This was Steve Martin's first dramatic role. Potter is one unusual dude and I just ordered his singing detective series. He was also involved in one of my favorite films Antonia's Line. In 1930s Depression America, Arthur Parker, a sheet-music salesman, is having a hard time, both in his business and at home with his wife Joan. His business is failing and Joan is not amorous enough for Arthur and refuses to give him money to start his own business. His dream is to live in a world that is like the songs he tries to sell. In his travels, Arthur meets a shy, beautiful but plain school teacher, Eileen. Arthur expresses his instant attraction by lip-syncing to the song "Did You Ever See A Dream Walking", as Eileen, converted to a brighter version of herself, dances. and so on and so on continues a fantasy fairy tale romance musical. It is bizarre and just enchanting. The lavish musical parts are such a contrast to the depression era setting of the film. Martin and Peters are just fantastic. Fred Astaire dissed the movie: "I have never spent two more miserable hours in my life. Every scene was cheap and vulgar. They don't realize that the thirties were a very innocent age". Herbert Ross and his creative team manage to bind all of the pieces together into one seamless collage of lost hope, forced optimism, and never-ending desperation. Gordon Willis' cinematography is never less than completely awe-inspiring, and the combined efforts of top-drawer art and set direction and Bob Mackie's seemingly authentic period costumes helps cement the look and feel of desolate decade that the film represents. Over all films in every genre, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN would be a likely contender to receive my vote for the single most underrated film masterpiece of the last twenty years--all the ratings on flixter--those people dont know what they are talking about. This movie was a boxoffice bomb but has gained a lot of respect in the last 15 years. Steve Martin Stated about his own film: "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." ha ha ha ha ha my thought exactly!! Five stars. highest recommendation. On my big screen TV this was just FABULOUS...!!!
July 23, 2009
This movie is probably one of the few that accurately depicted the zeitgeist of the depression. From it's hunger, to it's desperation, to it's fantasies this musical so amazingly brings it to life. I love that they draw on the photo and art images of the time (they reenact my favorite painting "New York Movie" (1939) in one scene) and Martin and Peters really are just divine.

BTW, if you only want one reason to see this movie it's this: Christopher Walken has a brief role. And he's dancing on a bar top doing a striptease and it is probably five minutes of the best dancing in movie history. Apparently it caught Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly's eyes and wrote a letters to Walken telling him so.
½ April 22, 2009
The characters and plot are pretty horrible. The music was good but thats about all that carried it. Walken's number was most definitely the best.
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