Nearing the end of a prison sentence for a crime he did not commit, lute-strumming crooner Larry Poole (Bing Crosby) agrees to deliver a letter on behalf of Hart (John Gallaudet), an inmate facing the electric chair. The letter is intended for Patsy (Edith Fellows), a young girl whom Larry finds living in poverty along with her grandfather (Donald Meek). In it Hart confesses to unintentionally killing Patsy's father and by way of atonement bequeaths them his creepy old house. While Larry is committed to a carefree life as a travelling minstrel, his growing affection for Patsy compels him to help her and 'Gramps' find their feet. A variety of often-musical adventures ensue as Larry tries to stop well-intentioned but misguided social worker Susan Sprague (Madge Evans) consigning Patsy to the orphanage and hatches a hair-brained scheme to turn their home into a haunted house-themed restaurant.
The song 'Pennies from Heaven', composed by Arthur Johnson and Johnny Burke, encapsulates the core themes of this feel-good musical comedy-drama. Nominated for an Academy Award, it grew to be a Depression-era favourite rousing the spirits of those not far removed from the characters featured in the movie, clinging to hope in the face of adversity. The song also went on to inspire iconoclastic British playwright Dennis Potter to craft the more widely acclaimed 1978 TV drama and subsequent movie of the same name. Which were also set in the Thirties though radically different in tone. In part an ironic commentary on the contrived nature of feel-good Hollywood fantasies like the 1936 original. Yet while Crosby's Pennies from Heaven, his first independent production whilst on loan to Columbia Pictures from home studio Paramount, is upbeat and unrepentantly sentimental it is neither insubstantial nor without grit. Indeed the film opens on a melancholy note almost as dark as the Dennis Potter movie wherein a subdued, repentant Hart entrusts Larry with last hope for redemption before his grim march to the electric chair.
Crosby's Larry Poole is the kind of hero screenwriting gurus dub 'the travelling angel': a carefree but kindly soul, always on the move unburdened by any “excess baggage” yet compelled by innate decency to help the unfortunate. In a performance arguably more affecting than his Oscar-winning turn in Going My Way (1944), Bing positively glows onscreen, charming co-stars and viewers alike with his indefatigable good cheer. Edith Fellows' enraptured reaction to Crosby's mellifluous crooning further sells the audience on the near-magical nature of his presence. Her sparky, actually quite unsentimental turn complements Crosby's persona perfectly and rather outshines Madge Evans as his inconsistently characterized love interest. Fellows, among the more versatile child performers of the Thirties and Forties including a lead role in the Columbia series Five Little Peppers and How They Grew (1939), sadly went on to suffer a great deal of hardship throughout her subsequent life prior to a happy comeback as a character actress (including a small role in The Hills Have Eyes, Part 2 (1984) of all things!). She is thoroughly engaging here whether performing a dance routine to Crosby's serenade or orchestrating various ghostly pop-up effects, complete with dancing skeleton, to accompany a spooky musical number performed by the great Louis Armstrong. Ol' Satchmo, whose own rendition of the title song is probably more popular than Crosby's gives a delightful turn as a shrewd supporting character. He was cast in the film at the behest of Crosby who also insisted he was given prominent billing, making him one of the first black performers to receive his due.
Based loosely on the novel 'The Peacock Feather' by Leslie Moore, Pennies from Heaven is very much a fairytale about facing tough times with a smile, gumption and a song in your heart. Its chief aim is to empathize with and ultimately celebrate the gentle resilience and steadfast ingenuity of those cast on society's lowest rung. In fact the film puts more faith in old fashioned American ingenuity than its government. It depicts well-intentioned social worker Susan Sprague as more hindrance than help. This message that if left unhindered by the government decent ordinary folk can sort out their own problems is closer to the mindset of conservative (not to mention wealthy!) Hollywood studio bosses and now seems at odds with the social reforms enacted by then President Franklin Roosevelt. At the same time films like Pennies from Heaven managed to serve Roosevelt's agenda through boosting public morale. Even today the simple sing-along camaraderie between Larry, Patsy and Gramps remains its most endearing aspect. Just one question though: how did a penniless drifter like Larry get his hands on a Thirteenth-century lute?