Pennies From Heaven
Everybody wanted to see The Jerk 2. Hell, I wanted to see The Jerk 2, too, but I was more than willing to wait for it. Steve Martin trained for six months to learn how to tap dance, and he got to be damn good at it. He will never be Astaire, but he had the guts to put himself into an Astaire movie and not disgrace himself. And we did get more The Jerk movies—though never a sequel, I’m glad to say. We got plenty of funny Steve Martin movies as he grew and continued to experiment. Meanwhile, this one bombed big time. Movie audiences were not ready for Steve Martin in a serious movie, and they weren’t ready for a musical that was anything but light and frothy. Hell, they weren’t ready for any musical, most likely, as this was long before the recent revival of that great old genre.
This is simply one of the best musicals ever made. I don’t keep a ranking of my favorites, but this would be in the top ten, maybe the top five. Fred Astaire hated it. But Fred was wrong, wrong, wrong. He said this: “They don’t realize that the thirties were a very innocent age …” Maybe they were in some ways, Fred, but you were up there dancing on the silver screen with Ginger, selling the lie that things were glossy and beautiful and just lots of fun if you wanted to tap your toes, not out in the breadlines. He also said: “[the film] should have been set in the eighties – it was just froth; it makes you cry it’s so distasteful.” Froth? No shit? Showing people down and out, women selling their asses because there was no other work, and all the other realities of the Great Depression—which you never experienced, not for one second—is froth? Froth was what you made, Fred darling, and I know the people loved it because it lifted them out of their doldrums for an hour and a half, and they appreciated it, and so do I, all these years later. You were a genius, man, but you were no social observer. That’s what this movie is about. How life didn’t even seem like living to many folks, until they saw the movies and sang the songs, and it gets its great power from whipsawing you from some of the frothiest, glitziest dance numbers ever put on film, then into the squalid lives of the people who were buying the tickets and sheet music.
Enough about Fred. Another reason people didn’t like this is precisely that it was jarring to cut from a glittery scene of Bernadette Peters and a lot of children dancing in a totally white classroom to the bleakness of the actual setting. People got emotional whiplash, going from tapping their feet and grinning to feeling bad at the squalor. That, plus the fact that it was all lip-synched to classic old jazz and swing numbers. The director and choreographer, Herbert Ross, deliberately put that fact in your face in the very first number, which is Steve Martin alone singing with a woman’s voice. Later we get three thugs in a bar also lip-synching in female voices, and Jessica Harper doing the bass notes in “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries.” It works real well for me, and it’s very funny, but I know that it put a lot of people off.
Yet another problem (but not for me) was that Arthur, Steve Martin, is a bastard, a coward, and a failure. His only saving grace is that he knows he’s a bastard, and wishes he could be better. But he also knows he never will. He’s a loser with big dreams, and exotic (for the time) sexual appetites. He’s driven by them, and he’s married to a frigid, timid little mouse who thinks everything is perverted except the missionary position with all the lights off, and she’s certainly never enjoyed even that.
He has an affair with another woman (the great Bernadette Peters), a schoolteacher who also looks like a timid mouse, but is as unhappy with her life as he is with is, and shows a willingness to do pretty much anything he wants, sexually. So he knocks her up, and abandons her to open a record store, which quickly fails. Bleak story, huh? It just gets worse, and the musical numbers just get flashier. At the very end, when Arthur is about to be hanged for a crime he didn’t commit … he comes dashing from the gallows and tells Peters their story can’t end like that, there has to be a happy ending. And the next thing you know, 127 girls in skimpy gold sequined outfits are dancing up a storm to “That’s the Story of Love.” (Some dopes at the IMDb complained that the ending was unbelievable. Well, duh. Of course it was, because it never happened. It was his last fantasy between the opening of the trap door and the sudden jerk of the noose.)
That’s all well and good, but the real magic is on the numbers, done on a scale that hadn’t been seen since, I dunno, Hello Dolly, or one of those last-gasp musicals of the ‘60s. And Ross totally outclassed those pictures, because he completely captured the goofy, over-the-top magnificence of the dancing of that era. Every single one of them works, from the awesome “Yes Yes! (My Baby Said Yes)” in the bank, to the amazing classroom dance, to the showstopper of them all, Chris Walken doing a striptease to “Let’s Misbehave.” We had been told that Steve had trained six months to learn how to dance (and he is very, very good), but who knew that sleepy-eyed, psycho-looking son of a bitch Walken could dance like that? Even Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly congratulated him after they saw it. Even the small numbers, like a terrific dance trio with Robert Fitch and the great Tommy Rall, are great. Keeping up with those two must have been a real challenge for Steve Martin. And last but not least, someone I’d never heard of, Vernel Bagneris (who I understand has a recurring role in the HBO series Treme) does an amazing number to “Pennies From Heaven” with nine million (no kidding) dollar-sized gold sequins blowing all around him. It is said they were still finding those sequins at MGM years later.
Last touch of icing on the cake: There are four “tableaux vivants,” recreations of famous American paintings. They are: “Hudson Bay Fur Company” and “20 Cent Movie,” both by Reginald Marsh, and “New York Movie” and the most famous of them all, “Nighthawks,” both by Edward Hopper.