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Warner Home Video presents

Pennies From Heaven (1981)

Arthur: I'm empty, Joan. Nothing inside me. Nothing at all.
Joan: Oh, what, Arthur? Not even a song? Not even a teeny-weeny little tune?
Arthur: I keep those songs in my bag, not in my heart.
- Steve Martin, Jessica Harper

Stars: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper
Other Stars: Vernel Bagneris, Christopher Walken, John McMartin
Director: Herbert Ross

MPAA Rating: R for nudity, sexual overtones, and language
Run Time: 01h:47m:34s
Release Date: 2004-07-24
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer


DVD Review

So it's 1981, and you're a big Steve Martin fan. His comedy albums and SNL appearances are classic. And The Jerk? What a big screen debut! And now, his new movie is coming out! Pennies From Heaven? Who cares what it's about, it's got that wild and crazy guy, it's gotta be good! Nearly two hours later, if you even stayed that long, you might have been thinking "What was THAT? I didn't pay to see Steve mime to old songs and act like a total creep!"

That's my general impression of what Martin's main fan base must have thought after seeing this Herbert Ross-directed musical. If Martin wanted to get away from the public image he had cultivated to that point, he likely could not have chosen a better film. A depressing, Depression era musical about a traveling sheet music salesman, Pennies is for my money Martin's best movie. Based on the 1978 BBC miniseries of the same name and adapted for the big screen by its creator, Dennis Potter, Pennies was a massive flop upon release but has fared much better over the years as Martin's career has moved away from his early schtick.

Martin plays Arthur Parker, a disillusioned, struggling sheet music salesman in the 1930s Chicago. He only believes in the songs he sells, songs that occasionally allow him to escape his decaying marriage to his frigid wife (Jessica Harper) and his thankless job. For those unfamiliar with Potter's work, his musicals used the unique device of having his characters' inner thoughts explored through popular song, in which an imaginary musical number will go on, with either the main character or other characters lipsyncing the tune, depending on the scene. I still get a thrill at seeing it done, particularly in Pennies' opening scene, in which Arthur, having had his amorous advances blunted by his wife, stares at her brushing her teeth while he "sings" Connie Boswell's I'll Never Dream Again. In Pennies, this device ranges from a small scale use as in the scene just described, or a full-blown musical number, like the Berkeley-esque My Baby Said Yes, performed by Arthur, the bank manager who has just refused him a loan, and bevy of dancing girls.

Arthur's life is changed when he meets two people on his next trip: a homeless accordion busker (Vernel Bagneris), and Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a shy schoolteacher. Arthur seduces Eileen, and things go downhill for everyone after that. Christopher Walken makes a brief appearance as a pimp who does a rip-roaring striptease to Let's Misbehave, one of the best sequences in the film. In addition to the elaborate musical numbers inspired by classic Hollywood of the era, the filmmakers based several sets on Depression-era art, such as the paintings of Edward Hopper, a device that worked for me, although some viewers may find the film becomes a "spot the reference" game.

If you've seen too many recent musicals (and I'm looking at you, Luhrmann and Marshall) with that incredibly annoying ADD-inspired editing style, which doesn't allow a viewer to actually see the performers do their thing for more than a second or two before the next cut, you'll be cheered to see that Herbert Ross, a former choreographer, knows how to shoot a dance scene. Did you have your doubts that Richard Gere did his tap dancing in Chicago? You won't about the performers here, as even Steve Martin acquits himself very well in his dancing scenes.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture quality here is fairly grainy and the colors slightly faded, but I imagine that's what was intended, given the settings and mood of the film. Pennies was shot by Gordon Willis, who used a great deal of darkness, and this comes through pretty well on the disc, with very little macroblocking or artifacting that I could see.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Given that the music used in the film dates from the '30s, the soundtrack is in Dolby 2.0 Mono. The music underwent cleanup prior to be used in the film, so it sounds quite good, minus the hiss and crackle or old recordings. Being that the film is so dialogue-driven, the lack of any fancier sound mix doesn't really hurt at all here. Everything is clear and easily understood.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Feature/Episode commentaries by Film critic Peter Rainer
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Pennies From Heaven: 20th Anniversary Cast and Crew Reunion (35:35)
Extras Review: A couple of nice extras were provided for the film; the first is a commentary by film critic Peter Rainer, who championed the film at its release and remains a huge fan of the picture. His commentary is fairly interesting though I would have liked a little more behind the scenes information. Rainer does point out information such as the paintings used as inspirations for a given shot and provides a good deal of interpretive discussion. Access to the commentary is guided by a penny icon that appears when a lengthy gap is about to start, which is appreciated by this viewer. Rainer does speak for a good deal of the movie, so there isn't a whole lot of dead time.

The other extra is a reunion of several cast and crew members at a screening of a new print of the film in 2001. Appearing were Martin, Jessica Harper, Art Director Bernie Cutler, Costume Designer Bob Mackie, Editor Richard Marks, Producer David Chasman, and Executive Producer Rick McCallum. Peter Rainer leads the informal discussion, which is fairly interesting, but doesn't really shed any major light on the film. Chasman makes the most interesting comment in discussing (too briefly) scenes cut from the film, such as Bagneris' character committing suicide. Rainer unfortunately doesn't follow up on this line of discussion at all. Weirdly, Bernadette Peters is not mentioned at all during the entire course of the session, given her role in the film.

The packaging lists the theatrical trailer as an extra, but it was not included on the disc.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

A noble attempt at reviving the great movie musical, this dark, difficult film can finally be appreciated on this excellent DVD courtesy of Warner. Even non-musical fans might find something to like here, if they give it a chance.

Jeff Wilson 2005-04-29