Friday, May 16, 2014

Pennies from Heaven (Emmanuel Cohen/Columbia, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a “feature,” a movie I’d long wanted to see and one I’d heard good things about: Pennies from Heaven, not the British TV miniseries with the recently deceased Bob Hoskins or its feature-film remake with Steve Martin (starting the seemingly endless series of remakes that would end up constituting virtually all of Martin’s film career) but the 1936 Bing Crosby vehicle for Columbia that introduced the famous title song. Pennies from Heaven came to exist as the result of some inter-studio machinations: Emmanuel Cohen, the executive who had forced B. P. Schulberg out of his job as head of Paramount Pictures in 1933 and taken over (thereby leading Schulberg’s son Budd to gain his revenge by writing the novel What Makes Sammy Run? about Cohen — Budd Schulberg originally called the book What Makes Manny Run? until his publisher’s libel attorneys had a hissy-fit and told him not to make his target that obvious), had himself been pushed out of the studio in 1936 and forced to set up shop elsewhere. Cohen had a not-so-secret weapon to stay in the game: Bing Crosby. To Crosby, Cohen wasn’t the scapegrace who’d pushed Budd Schulberg’s dad out of his job at Paramount, nor was he the idiot who fired the Marx Brothers right after they made their masterpiece, Duck Soup (the other thing Cohen gets attacked and ridiculed for in modern film histories); he was the Paramount executive who had helped him build his film career from starring roles in Mack Sennett shorts to starring roles in big musical features. By 1936 Crosby had won a contract concession from Paramount that allowed him to make one movie a year elsewhere, so he agreed to sign with Cohen for that one film a year — and Pennies from Heaven was the first film they set up under that deal, getting Harry Cohn at Columbia to release the movie because he wanted to build his company’s reputation from a “B” outlet to a major studio, and an association with one of the screen’s biggest musical stars would certainly help.

Cohen bought the rights to a story by Katharine Leslie Moore called The Peacock Feather and blended it with a screen original by William Rankin, though the actual script was by Columbia contractee Jo Swerling, known for a somewhat loopy and demented sense of humor. He also hired Norman Z. McLeod to direct it even though McLeod’s best-known credits, then and now, were the Marx Brothers movies Monkey Business and Horse Feathers he had made under the Schulberg regime at Paramount. Pennies from Heaven has a grim opening scene; J. C. Hart (John Gallaudet) is about to be executed, and as his last wish he tells the warden he wants to meet fellow prisoner Larry Poole (Bing Crosby), who’s going to be paroled the following week. Hart has noticed Poole because he sang in the prison’s exercise yard and accompanied himself on a 13th century lute — a symbol of Poole’s thwarted desire to go to Venice (the one in Italy, not the one in California!), drive a gondola and otherwise live the free and easy life. (Quite a few of Crosby’s movies cast him as a footloose and fancy-free character, but this was his first role in that vein and it set the stereotype for the rest.) Since Poole is due to be paroled the following week, Hart gives him a letter to deliver to his family, the Smiths in New Jersey. Only, once Poole finally runs down the Smiths — Grandpa (Donald Meek) and Patsy (Edith Fellows) — they aren’t Hart’s own relatives but the father and daughter, respectively, of the man Hart was just executed for murdering. The letter contains a note explaining that Hart didn’t mean to murder the middle Smith, and a key to an old house Hart owned in New Jersey that he wants to give the surviving Smiths as a way to atone for his crime. Larry encounters Patsy at a carnival, found she was being rooked at one of the games, got the carnie who was cheating her to give her the prize she was after (a pair of opera glasses), then busked to get them the 10¢ they needed for a loaf of bread to go with grandpa’s ham for dinner. Only since Grandpa and Patsy have just been thrown out of their home — they regularly move into a place they can’t afford, order furniture on the installment plan, then wait for the owner to evict them and the finance companies to repossess everything — Grandpa has to swallow his pride and move into the home given him by his son’s killer.

Meanwhile, we’ve also been introduced to social worker Susan Sprague (Madge Evans, the marvelously sincere heroine of Al Jolson’s vehicle Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and just as good here), who’s determined to get Patsy placed in an orphanage since she’s more wild than the other 19 kids in her caseload combined. Since the house Larry has just given the Smiths has a reputation for being haunted, Larry has the idea that if they can open it as a “haunted house” cabaret he can prove that he can provide a suitable home and financial support for Patsy and thereby keep her from being placed in an orphanage. Alas, lacking capital to open, Larry sells 110 percent of the business to various suppliers and assures himself a supply of chicken dinners for the menu by getting Louis Armstrong (playing himself — it was his first feature-length film, aside from the now-lost 1931 Tiffany production Ex-Flame, and he not only appears as a musician he even gets to do some minimal acting, though like most Black males in movies at the time he’s drawn as deliberately shuffling and stupid, offering to take 7 percent instead of 10 because he has a seven-piece band and can’t figure out how to divide 10 percent seven ways) and his bandmembers to steal the chickens. (His earlier plan had been to get a hen and a rooster, breed them and create his own chickens au naturel, but Patsy — whose shaky knowledge of animal genders had already been established when she milked a cow and then said, “Thank you, Mr. Cow” — got two hens instead.) Opening night also turns into closing night when a city inspector comes in and shuts the place down for not having got a business license— though fortunately this only takes place after Armstrong and his band (his full big band, by the way; the script may tell us there are only seven pieces but we see considerably more people than that on screen) have performed “The Skeleton in the Closet,” with a skeleton (actually a waiter in a black velvet suit with white “bones” stuck on to make him look properly “skeletal” and various “scary” figures popping out of the walls like jack-in-the-boxes, all worked by Patsy from her redoubt in the building’s attic) in what’s the movie’s only real production number.

The other songs are pretty much just filmed straightforwardly, with Bing singing his heart out in the general direction of the camera, except for a big scene at the end in which, after Patsy has finally been taken to the orphanage (Larry blames Susan, though it was really something her boss ordered behind her back, then got her fired when she complained), Larry goes to the carnival we saw in the early sequences and gets them to give a free show for the orphans, intending to use it as a cover to break Patsy out of the place by concealing her in the bass drum (and Edith Fellows’ reactions to the constant pounding of her hiding place are priceless). The song “Pennies from Heaven” has been criticized as mindlessly optimistic — John Steinbeck used it in The Grapes of Wrath, having it played on the jukebox at a fly-ridden diner to contrast its naïve lyrics (“You’ll find your fortune falling all over town/Be sure that your umbrella is upside down”) with the real impoverishment, financial and spiritual, of his characters; and in his liner notes to the first CD reissue of Billie Holiday’s recording, Michael Brooks said that Bing’s and Arthur Tracy’s versions “make the tune easy to remember, but … expose its meretricious quality.” No, Bing’s version isn’t the equal of Holiday’s for wrenching power — the two compare something like the versions of “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green and Tina Turner, one a smoothly crooned message that all’s right with the world, the other a desperate plea to believe in a better future in the face of all evidence to the contrary — but Bing’s works superbly in the context of a film that’s surprisingly dark. Larry, Patsy and Grandpa are so committed to “just being left alone” — that’s the phrase Swerling uses in his script — and so opposed to all forces of authority that get in their way that Pennies from Heaven almost qualifies as an anarchist film, and in context “Pennies from Heaven” isn’t the reactionary piece of forced optimism John Steinbeck heard and used it as, but a plea to the world to stop telling its free spirits how to live and to let them be, since nature and God will take care of them just fine.

At a time when Paramount was shoving Crosby into one conventional by-the-numbers musical after another, Columbia (and Emmanuel Cohen) put him into a movie that probably for the first time in his career (unless you count those marvelous drink-soaked performances he gave early on in The Big Broadcast and Going Hollywood, in which Crosby was basically playing the image he had “in the business” of a irresponsible performer whose alcohol consumption had played hell with his reliability) actually required him to act. In fact, just about everybody in Pennies from Heaven works above the normal level of their talents; director McLeod, who in his two films with the Marx Brothers seemed more to be holding on for dear life than actually directing (the Marx Brothers could be directed — Leo McCarey did it in Duck Soup and Sam Wood in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races — but the task was beyond McLeod), shoots some quite creative compositions (my favorite was the opera-glasses’ eye closeup of Crosby from Edith Fellows’ point of view) and stages the action surprisingly handsomely. Another element that helps make this movie especially good is Edith Fellows’ performance; it would have been so easy for her to play the character as a Shirley Temple clone (at a time when Temple was literally the most popular movie star in the world and her gooey-sweet persona was being imposed on just about every other pre-pubescent actor of either gender in Hollywood). Instead she portrays Patsy in a tough, unsentimental way that avoids the obvious sentimental trap in which the role could have been squeezed; as a kid fighting to stay out of the orphanage and stay with the uncertainly employed but basically decent and resourceful man she’s ended up with, she’s far closer to Jackie Coogan in Chaplin’s The Kid than what we’re used to thinking of as a child star in a 1930’s film.

There are certainly aspects about Pennies from Heaven that anticipate Bing’s later movies — in one sequence, in a desperate attempt to make money for his family of choice, he signs on to be a daredevil at the carnival, with the barker who hired him assuring that there’s no real danger even though the previous person who did that stunt was killed — a situation repeated in The Road to Zanzibar six years later with Bing as the barker and Bob Hope as the patsy — and the whole business of Bing as a happy-go-lucky loafer anticipates Holiday Inn, Blue Skies and quite a few of Bing’s later films. But it’s also a surprisingly tough movie — enough so that one could readily imagine it with James Cagney in Bing’s role (remember that Cagney said in his autobiography that his one career regret was he did so few musicals) — and while there’s a certain amount of Capra-corn about it (it was, after all, made at a time when Capra was Columbia’s biggest box-office attraction and his films were about the only ones from Columbia critics and fellow producers took seriously), it’s also a gritty tale of survival amid the Depression realities — and it even mentions the Townsend Plan, the old-age pension scheme concocted by Dr. Francis Townsend in California in the mid-1930’s. Though even progressive economists said the Townsend Plan (which was actually approved by ballot initiative in California — and then repealed by another initiative a year later) wasn’t economically feasible, it sparked a powerful enough movement to scare the Roosevelt administration into coming up with a more workable alternative, which became Social Security.