“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 of hit 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.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1981
So begins Kael’s laudatory review for Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven (1981), a kind of Brechtian tragicomedy about the power that popular music held during Depression-era America. It’s one of her most famous reviews, noteworthy mainly because she was the only one who really saw much in the film, an example of how sometimes her enthusiasm was too particular, and didn’t catch on. (Her confounding review of Brian de Palma’s Casualties of War is another such example.) Reading it, we see how excited she could get about a movie that spoke to her—sometimes only to her. I found Pennies from Heaven’s lip-syncing gimmick tiresome, and its tone seemed too off-beat, as if it couldn’t decide how it wanted to depict its strange, dreamy characters or the world they live in, itself some kind of dark dream of the ’30s. It struck me as only a middling film. Reading one of Kael’s rave reviews of a film that you just didn’t “get” is a strange experience. There’s so much energy in her writing that even when you don’t agree with her, you wish you did.
Kael’s taste in musicals was, like her taste in just about everything else, unpredictable. She abhorred West Side Story, which she found big and junky, yet she somehow wrote favorably about Oliver! She also raved about Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret later in the ’70s. But she loved the 1930s Rogers/Astaire musicals for their simple elegance and quietly dazzling, cheerfully silly dance numbers, and Pennies from Heaven surely must have played on her own nostalgia for them. Given her deep affection for these movies, it’s no wonder she responded so deeply to the scene in which Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters watch a Rogers and Astaire movie and then join in the dancing happening on the screen (“it makes you gasp,” she wrote). We see the legacy of her views on movie musicals and dance in her friend Stephanie Zacharek’s review of The Artist, in which she praises that film’s tap number for being filmed “in long, glorious takes. No crazy cutting to make the steps look more exciting…I had pretty much given up hope that filmmakers knew how to do that sort of thing anymore.” Kael found something similar in Pennies from Heaven—a musical that understood the genre and what it meant. Whether many other people found as much in the film is another story.