This musical stars Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, and Jessica Harper, with a host of good performers, and Christopher Walken as Tom. It begins in Chicago in 1934. Steve plays Arthur, a traveling sheet music salesman whose territory is East Central Illinois. Jessica is Joan, his wife, who is not just frigid, but almost totally repressed, and thinks her life would be better if she could just repress Arthur as well. The first number is Arthur lip-synching to an old Connie Boswell song, “I’d Never Have To Dream Again”. Basically if you would love me, show some affection, I could stop dreaming about it, which, because it’s a female voice, somehow makes his plight even sadder. I know it’s Connie Boswell because it says so in the captions (all of the songs are properly credited while being sung so you don’t have to wait for the end credits). I looked her up and learned that she started out as one of the three Boswell Sisters, who had a #1 hit in “The Object of My Affection” in 1935, and then broke up as a group in 1936. Connie continued on her own, dueting with Bing Crosby for several hits and having some on her own, including “If I Give My Heart to You”. She also at some point changed the spelling of her name to “Connee”.
Back to the movie: Joan has money of her own, inherited from her father, but she refuses to use it to ease their situation because her father always said it was for a rainy day. Arthur tells her it’s pouring, but she won’t change her mind. So Arthur goes to the bank to get a loan, and the second number is lip-synched with Arthur doing the male part and the banker (Jay Garner) who has just turned him down for the loan, doing a female part. The song is “Yes, Yes (My baby said yes, yes, I’m glad she said yes, yes, Instead of no, no)” sung by Sam Browne and the Carlyle Cousins. It’s funny and charming and nostalgic, since it includes Busby Berkeley-like kaleidoscope dancing.
And now as we see more of Arthur, Joan becomes more sympathetic (not much more, but some). And the movie really gives you a sense of just how depressing the Depression was. Characters keep on trying to make it, and they keep on singing and dancing (in dream sequences like the bank number), but reality just keeps on rearing its head and crushing the good moments. Bernadette Peters, the other part of the central triangle, plays Eileen, a grade-school teacher who lives with her brother, Vernel Bagneris plays a stutterer who plays accordion on the street for pennies, John McMartin is Eileen’s hidebound principal, John Karlen is a detective, M.C. Gainey plays “Young Policeman”, and Robert Fitch and Tommy Rall play Al and Ed, two drinking buddies of Arthur’s.
If you’re crazy for musicals you may have seen Tommy Rall before. He played Lucentio in “Kiss Me Kate” and Frank Pontipee in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. The year “Pennies from Heaven” was released, Tommy was 52, Robert was 47, and Steve was 36. The joy and athleticism of their dancing together to “It’s a Girl” (sung by the Boswell Sisters), is phenomenal and delightful.
Christopher Walken deserves (and gets) a mention all his own. His song and dance number, to Irving Aaronson’s performance of “Let’s Misbehave”, is lewd, because as he sings and dances he and two women grope each other and then the two women strip him down to his boxers, and startling, because he’s so good. I knew he was a trained dancer, but this is astonishing.
And Bernadette Peters is especially beautiful in a number with her students, a song by Phyllis Robbins called “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You”. Plus she and Steve have a finale that starts with the two of them as the last patrons at a movie theater showing an Astaire-Rogers film. They leave their seats and get on the little apron stage in front of the screen where they are dwarfed by the images but are doing the same dance steps. Then they take the place of Fred and Ginger on the screen and complete the number. It’s really terrific!
Because the depression-era music is such an important part of the film , I want to give these artists credit (in addition to those listed above):
Arthur Tracy sings “Pennies from Heaven”,
Rudy Vallee sings “Let’s Put Out the Lights and Go To Bed”,
Helen Kane sings “I Wanna Be Bad”,
Dolly Dawn sings “It’s a Sin To Tell a Lie”,
Elsie Carlisle sings “The Clouds Will Soon Roll By”,
and Bing Crosby sings “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking”.
The music was arranged and conducted by Marvin Hamlisch and Billy May, the choreography is by Danny Daniels, the costumes were designed by Bob Mackie, and the screenplay, which was based on original material by the screenplay writer, is by Dennis Potter. What that means is that Potter wrote a screenplay version of his own BBC miniseries. The film was directed by Herbert Ross. And it is definitely something you should see.