If Dennis Potter’s British TV mini-series Pennies from Heaven suffered from having too little money and resources, Herbert Ross’ 1981 Americanized big-screen version probably suffers from having too much of both. Conceptually, the film—like its TV predecessor—is brilliant. The idea of presenting a story of the Depression in terms of the popular recordings of the day—focusing on the pain beneath the cheerful, optimistic or even vapid songs and the fantasies of a nonexistent world they conjure—is inspired. And simply encountering a soundtrack comprised of recordings by Connee Boswell, Arthur Tracy, Bing Crosby, Irving Arranson and His Commanders, the Boswell Sisters, Helen Kane etc. is reason enough to see the results.
But somewhere along the way, something got a little lost. Maybe it’s the sheer size of the production that resulted. (The fact that one of the best sequences is the simple one where Jessica Harper lip-synchs to Dolly Dawn’s recording of “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie” suggests as much.) Maybe it’s the repetitively lewd choreography (it gets old). Maybe it’s the fact that Steve Martin just doesn’t look like he belongs in the 1930s. Or maybe it’s simply that Herbert Ross is no Busby Berkeley. Whatever the case, it doesn’t quite work. Enough of it works, however, to give the film a shot, and it does in some ways improve with the passage of time. But if nothing else, it deserves high marks for effort.