“Pennies from Heaven is the most emotional movie musical I’ve ever seen. It’s a stylized mythology of the Depression which uses the popular songs of the period as expressions of people’s deepest longings—for sex, for romance, for money, for a high good time. When the characters can’t say how they feel, they evoke the songs: they open their mouths, and the voices on hjt records come out of them. And as they lip-sync the lyrics, their obsessed eyes are burning bright. Their souls are in those voices, and they see themselves dancing just like the stars in movie musicals.
“…. Eileen is pale and gentle, a brown-eyed blonde with soft curls—tendrils, really. She looks malleable, like the young Janet Gaynor. Eileen lives in a song world, too, and she’s eager to believe Arthur’s lie that he isn’t married. She also has a spicy, wanton side; she turns into a Kewpie doll when she mimes Helen Kane’s boop-boop-a-doops in “I Want to Be Bad.” She has everything that Arthur wants, except money….
“The lip-syncing idea works wonderfully; it’s in the dialogue interludes that the movie gets off on the wrong foot. Most of these scenes need to be played faster—to be snappier and more hyperbolic, with little curlicues of irony in the performances ot point things up…. Yet the scenes in themselves—even those that are awkwardly paced and almost static—still have a rapt, gripping quality. And even when a scene cries out for a spin, a futher twist of artifice, the actors carry the day. Bernadette Peters has ironic curlicues built in, and her exaggerated Queens diction (which is certainly eccentric for an Illinois girl) gives her her own cheeping-chicky sound.
“Besides Arthur and Joan and that heavenly angel cake Eileen, there are two other major characters….
“…. In the film’s most startling sequence, … Arthur and Eileen sit watching Follow the Fleet. Arthur … goes up on the stage, and Eileen joins him—two tiny, sharply edged figures in deep, rich color against the huge black-and-white screen images of Astair and Rogers dancing, and they really seem to be there. They dance along with the stars on the screen, and then the two miniscule figures shift into black-and-white, and take over…. Do Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters really dare to put themselves in Astaire and Rogers’ place? Yet they carry it off….
“Despite its use of Brechtian devices, Pennies from Heaven doesn’t allow you to distance yourself. You’re thrust into the characters’ emotional extremes; you’re right in front of the light that’s shining from their eyes. And you see the hell they go through for sex and money….
“There’s something new going on—something thrilling—when the characters in a musical are archetypes yet are intensely alive…. Steve Martin … gives an almost incredibly controlled performance, and Bernadette Peters is mysteriously right in every nuance. Herbert Ross and Ken Adam and Danny Daniels and Gordon Willis and Bob Mackie and the whole cast worked at their highest capacities—perhaps were even inspired to exceed them. They all took chances…. [T]his picture shows that the talent to make great movie musicals is out there, waiting.”
The New Yorker, December 21, 1981
Taking It All In, pp. 272-278