Arthur (Steve Martin) is a song sheet salesman in the Depression-hit America of 1934, and this morning, before he has to leave on a business trip to drum up interest in his wares, he wishes to make love with his wife Joan (Jessica Harper). However, as he tries to rouse her she resists his advances and he is forced to give up his attentions and get out of bed for the day, frustrated and unsatisfied. As they discuss how far apart their needs in marriage are, Arthur goes into a reverie where he is singing one of the songs he sells, but Joan snaps him out of it and no amount of coaxing will bring her around. Yet what if he were to meet someone who knew exactly what he wanted?
And was prepared to give it to him, for that matter? Pennies from Heaven was adapted from own his acclaimed BBC television series by Dennis Potter, not the most obvious choice for a film as the original had been a few hours long, and the movie was condensed into under two. Potter did manage to hit the important points, but to most audiences of the time who knew the source it missed the mark by miles, another example of Hollywood taking material it did not know how to tackle correctly. For those who were unfamiliar with it, they were wondering when Steve Martin was going to do or say something remotely funny.
But this was no wacky comedy of the style that had made the comedian's name, it was an mixture of tribute to classic musicals and abyssal gloom with no room for rabbit ears or nonsense quips. Little wonder that this did next to no business back in 1981, as the audiences were split into two camps, those who thought the source had been bastardised, and those who were left baffled that one of the biggest comic talents in America would want to make something so determinedly miserable. Martin only had himself to blame: he loved the script and was set on doing the film even if nobody liked it, so was gratified to learn that after a while Pennies from Heaven began to find its feet and gathered a reputation among movie buffs as unjustly neglected.
The main difference between the BBC version and the film is the amount of money thrown at it: where Bob Hoskins lipsynched to vintage Al Bowly records with very little adornment, here there were all-out production numbers for the miming with energetic dancing and rows of showgirls paying their debt to Busby Berkeley. The plot remained much the same, if rushed through in consideration of the more limited running time, as Arthur meets two significant people on his travels, a beggar who he gives a lift and a meal to, and a country schoolteacher, Eileen (Bernadette Peters), who he falls in love with at first sight. He has to tell her that his wife is dead to get her to sleep with him, but this shy girl does indeed do so willingly, and Arthur has found his ideal woman.
Unfortunately for everyone, the story starts at a point of desperation and goes downhill from there. Arthur's plans to open a record shop with Joan's reluctantly-given inheritance end up in financial disaster, and he gets Eileen pregnant, so she has to leave her job and ends up on the streets of Chicago. The fact that she falls victim to a pimp played by Christopher Walken is not made any more acceptable by the stunning dance routine he offers us, as the message here is that no matter how sweet the escapism provided by songs and cinema, real life is so grim that it will bring everything down to its level of dejection. Crucially, the music does not go away, but the brief respite of time it spends giving pleasure is equated to sex in Potter's world. Yet the false perception is if you enjoy sex here then you might as well be a prostitute if you're a woman, or a pervert or rapist if you're a man. Not that Arthur rapes anyone, but nobody except Eileen believes he did not, and the plot grinds towards its tragic, bitterly ironic conclusion. This is genuinely better than was acknowledged on its release, but it's by no means a comfortable watch, with the delicate balance between moods just out of reach.