Hey, Austin! The Alamo Drafthouse's Steve Martin screening series, Wild & Crazy: The Films Of Steve Martin, is ongoing! Next week brings us Pennies From Heaven and The Lonely Guy. Get your tickets here.
"I must say that the people who get the movie, in general, have been wise and intelligent; the people who don't get it are ignorant scum." - Steve Martin
By the end of the 1970s, Steve Martin was a rock star. He was selling out arenas and making people smile all over. It was never his intention to be a stand-up comedian, but when you're Steve Martin, success finds you.
In 1979, when Martin turned his sights from stand-up and Saturday Night Live to his goal of getting into film, he created what has been arguably hailed as one of the greatest comedic performances in one of the greatest comedies of all-time. The Jerk proved to be both a commercial and financial success, and Martin found himself sitting on top of the world with what appeared to be limitless options at his feet. So, what do you do when you have that kind of power?
You give Christopher Walken a "Mom" tattoo on his chest and have him strip-tap-dance playing a pimp while lip-syncing to Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave." OBVIOUSLY.
Martin saw the original BBC miniseries of Pennies From Heaven and decided it was "the greatest thing (he'd) ever seen." So, he took six months out of his life to learn how to tap dance and recruited the dance machine known as Christopher Walken, then-girlfriend Bernadette Peters, pre-Footloose director Herbert Ross, and the writer of the original BBC series and was off to the races.
It was an admirable, huge swing for the fences from a newly-minted comedic star who refused to be typecast as a buffoon—but sadly, audiences didn't respond, and the film went on to gross a mere $9 million against a $22-million-dollar budget. However, critics generally seemed to appreciate it, and the film was even nominated for three Academy Awards and three Golden Globes, including a win for Peters. Sadly, this stylized Depression-era piece—where the characters escape into their imaginations and lip-sync popular songs of the time to express their inner longings for sex, money, and romance—was doomed to be forgotten as a footnote of a serious role once played by a comic exploring his limits.
So, were audiences wrong?
Didn't you read what Steve Martin said in the opening? People who don't get this film are "ignorant scum!"
Roger Ebert had a more eloquent way of putting it. "Hollywood is always pragmatic in these matters: If the filmmakers haven't made the film the studio had in mind, the studio simply advertises the film they wish had been made. That led to some thoroughly puzzled audiences, as Martin fans lined up for a wild and crazy musical and discovered they were in a musical that wanted to subvert musicals."
Pennies From Heaven features joyous, Busby Berkely-esque numbers to the tunes of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but the problem most people seemed to find was the film's juxtaposition of an unrelentingly depressing narrative—of an unsuccessful sheet music salesman who embarks on a sordid affair with a beautiful school teacher—with the mindless song and dance of the same era's escapist entertainment. It's not an easy film to watch, and the twists and turns along the way are far too tragic to spoil, but this dramatic musical is a complicated piece of dazzling spectacle and heart-wrenching drama and deserves to be viewed by any self-proclaimed Steve Martin fan or film aficionado at least once.
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wonder where Pennies From Heaven has been your entire life and how a smooth talking comedic legend managed to get this made.
"There's a world on both sides of the rainbow where songs come true and every time it rains, it rains...pennies from heaven."
Once again, the Alamo Drafthouse's Steve Martin screening series, Wild & Crazy: The Films Of Steve Martin, is ongoing! Next week brings us Pennies From Heaven and The Lonely Guy. Get your tickets here.