R, 108 min.
Director: Herbert Ross
Writer: Dennis Potter
Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper, Vernal Bagneris, John McMartin, John Karlen, Jay Garner, Eliska Krupka, Christopher Walken
“Pennies Fro Heaven” is a film that I often see written about with respectful tones, but it did not receive the respect or the box office upon its release. This is for good reason. It was a bold experiment of making a depression era musical with recordings from that era. It isn’t one of those happy go lucky MGM musicals, but one that reflects the time in which it takes place. Placing a then zany comedian like Steve Martin in the lead role and the unknown to Hollywood Bernadette Peters as his co-star was also a risky move for such an endeavor. Director Herbert Ross was the only known commodity of the bunch, coming off a string of successful dramadies, like “The Goodbye Girl” and “The Sunshine Boys”.
Even with the amazing cinematography of Gordon Willis bringing the depression-era setting of this odd love story to life, there are just too many clashing elements here for this experiment to work. Although Martin would eventually become a versatile actor, capable of much from broad slapstick comedy to surprisingly dark drama, he had yet to build up his dramatic character enough to pull off his role of a sheet music salesman who dreams of a better life where he’s not dependant on his wife’s family money. He begins a romance with a school teacher and frequently fantasizes about a life reflective of those old fashioned MGM musicals I mentioned, where happiness comes in a tux and the riches are on display in every production number.