BMEoTD #171: Pennies from Heaven (1981)
At the end of the 1970s, looking back at a decade of artistic misfires and colossal flops, MGM Studios decided they needed a project that brought back the glamour that had made them famous, a big-budget musical the likes of which no one was making anymore. For inspiration, they turned to an unlikely source: Pennies from Heaven, the six-hour BBC miniseries written by Dennis Potter, which juxtaposed a grim depression-era story of economic struggles and sexual infidelity with flights of musical fantasy, the characters lip-synching to period tunes bursting with the optimism and good cheer mostly absent in such hard-scrabble times. It’s a dark, confrontational work, and in hindsight it seems ridiculous anyone thought they had a moneymaker on their hands; MGM’s adaptation wound up another flop, but also one of their rare masterpieces of the era.
Where the original maintained a cramped, domestic air throughout, never leaving the cheap sets, the Hollywood remake would be nothing less than a Hollywood remake. Top talents—the legendary Ken Adam as visual consultant, costumes both drab and glittering by Bob Mackie, choreography by Danny Daniels, Gordon Willis as cinematographer—conspired with director Herbert Ross to create a schizophrenic universe, the songs playing out in lavishly designed spaces whose polished floors gleamed like mirrors and rows of dancing girls suddenly spilled out of the wings. The production numbers, always entered and exited with brutal, jarring cuts, capture not just the excitement of movie musicals, but their grotesque surrealism. After sheet-music salesman Arthur (Steve Martin) is turned down for a loan, the bank manager turns around and mincingly giggles his way through the compliant female part in “Yes, Yes!” When his lover Eileen’s (Bernadette Peters) thoughts of him are interrupted by the class she’s teaching, the desks become a white-on-white line of pianos, the moppets’ insufferable rudeness becoming insufferable cuteness as they bash out accompaniment to her shimmying through “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.” Potter disowned the movie for precisely these extravagances (seeing the transformed classroom, he said, was “the moment I realized they were never going to make it work”), but their excess is the sickness choking the film’s sad heart, a feverish regurgitation of lies the movies have been feeding us for years.