A couple of weeks ago, Will mentioned to me that he had seen Pennies From Heaven. He asked what I thought of it and I told him I wasn’t that fond of it. I didn’t think it worked. But I began to think back on the film and reconsider it. After all, I was only 17 when I saw it. So I picked up a copy and finally got around to seeing it last night. I really wasn’t wrong about the film. It is a worthy effort and often brilliant. It isn’t perfect, of course, it has minor problems. The story is too episodic and the murder subplot was entirely the wrong way to go. But these are minor. There is really only one major thing wrong with the film and it is fatal.
He’s just terrible. He does to this film what Bruce Willis did to Last Man Standing. But it is much worse here. Whereas Willis plays his usual stilted action hero character, Martin delivers lines like the understudy at a bad high school play. And then there is the dancing where he is obviously outclassed by everyone else. It’s a real shame.
There is much to like in the film. Gordon Willis’ cinematography is just perfect for the film. Of course, the whole art crew does a great job with the realism of the period and the fantasy numbers. Jessica Harper as the long suffering wife with homicidal fantasies is fantastic. Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken burn up the screen. And Vernel Bagneris gives the best performance of the film. Sometimes, I thought that Danny Daniels’ choreography was uninspired, but at other times it was as good as anything I’ve ever seen. And Herbert Ross directs the hell out of the film. This is my favorite scene:
As you may know, this film is based upon a BBC television mini-series of the same name. I haven’t seen it, but I do know that Bob Hoskins played the Steve Martin role. And all I can do is sigh for the lost opportunity. It didn’t have to be Hoskins, of course, just about any decent actor would have saved this film. But this was Steve Martin’s second starring role. He made The Jerk right before Pennies From Heaven, and he brings the same level of acting to each film. That level, of course, is the level that one sees on Saturday Night Live.
Interestingly, just four years later, another film was made that addressed the same themes. And it too was shot by Gordon Willis: The Purple Rose of Cairo. There is a difference, of course. In Pennies, Arthur wants to make his life like the popular songs he sells. In Cairo, Cecilia just wants to escape from her life into the Hollywood movies she watches. Thus, even though Cairo is explicitly a fantasy—actual magic happens in the story—it is the more realistic. And so I think we get a film that speaks to us much more profoundly. The ending of Pennies from Heaven doesn’t really work. The ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of the greats, right up there with the best of Vittorio De Sica:
Artistically, I think the ending of The Purple Rose of Cairo would have worked better if Allen had left it vague. As a viewer, I like the sweet ending; I like watching her get drawn into the movie and smiling. But it strikes me as a little heavy handed. I imagine that the money people were pushing for that happy ending. It’s hard to say, of course. I would have been crushed if the dog had not come back in Umberto D. Regardless, Allen’s ending to Cairo is still artful. It’s a choice is all; and a hard choice at that.
To end The Purple Rose of Cairo with an explicit unhappy ending where she, for example, just cries would have been a mistake. I really think there were only the two options: happy or vague.