Sunday, January 1, 2012

Pennies From Heaven

In the 80's in San Francisco, there were two theaters one always hoped a movie would end up playing: The Northpoint on Powell, close to Fisherman's Wharf, and the Coronet, out on Geary.

They were the two biggest theaters in town, boasted 70mm and Dolby Stereo, and most importantly, were single-screened venues.

The Coronet had standard seating, as well as a "loge," which was kind of like a balcony, but not. (Basically it was the part of the theater that looks like what most theaters these days look like, the so-called "stadium seating" set-up.)

The Northpoint, on the other hand, was just straight on floor  seating. No balcony, and no loge. This was usually fine, as long as no one tall sat in front of you. Also, you wouldn't want to get stuck sitting on the side aisles, since those were the smoking sections. (I remember having to sit there in 1977 when I saw The Goodbye Girl, and the person next to me was a chain smoker, so all my memories of that movie come with a smokey haze, and the sent of tobacco.)

Pennies From Heaven was playing at the Northpoint in 1982, and I saw it with my parents on New Year's Day. It was a movie I was keen on seeing for two reasons: I loved Steve Martin, and I had a fondness for lip-syncing movie musicals.

Well, a fondness for one, a BIG fondness, for Bugsy Malone, (which I saw in 1976 at the Coronet). I loved that movie so much I wore out the soundtrack record, and could lipsync to all of its songs better than the cast members themselves did.

Pennies From Heaven ended up being a flop, and I know I found it a bit perplexing. Of course, at the time I had no real awareness of its history, since I had not been exposed to the original Dennis Potter miniseries which aired in Britain, and wouldn't be exposed to it for years to come.

It's a goddamned depressing movie--complete with rape, murder, and the gallows--and certainly wasn't the thing I expected from my favorite comedian, Steve Martin. Nonetheless, I bought the soundtrack album (and still have it!) and the movie was probably what brought classic movie musicals to my consciousness, particularly the "Let's Face the Music and Dance" sequence.

In rewatching it, I understand even more why it was a flop. For one thing, Steve Martin's character is just a creep, and it's really hard to muster up any sympathy for him. It's been a while since I saw the BBC version, but I recall finding Bob Hoskins's take on the character much more likable. I think it's because Hoskins is such a tough looking little bruiser that his love for sentimental songs softens him up unexpectedly, and even though he does some pretty egregious things, when he bursts into song, you can't help but feel a little sorry for him

Martin's Arthur is just an oversexed jerk from the very beginning, and because he's handsome to begin with, he's not enough of an underdog to warrant any rooting for.

Pennies From Heaven is definitely an R-rated movie, but it wasn't unusual for me to go to R-rated movies as a 12-year-old. (You'll soon see even more proof of that.) But the sexual stuff in Pennies, like the lipstick on the nipples moment, definitely icked me out then. And it still kind of icks me out now, mainly because, once again, it just helps paint Martin's character as creepy.

I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but when I do like them, they tend to be really depressing musicals. This falls into that camp, for sure. And while as a whole I can't say I'm a huge fan of Pennies From Heaven, I can appreciate most of its musical moments, and can definitely thank it for introducing me to Christopher Walken, song and dance man:


  1. your lukewarm review has made me want to see it (not mention that awesome sequence with walken!)

  2. Parts of it are definitely worth watching it; some of the musical numbers are really spectacular. It's just a shame the rest of the movie doesn't live up to those brief moments.