‘Follow the Fleet’ in ‘Pennies from Heaven’

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In the previous post, I said that Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) was influenced by Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. That’s certainly true, but Allen also had to have had in mind Pennies from Heaven. I mean the 1981 film version directed by Herbert Ross and starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, rather than the 1978 BBC series with Bob Hoskins on which it was based.

In Pennies — set, like Purple Rose, in the 1930s — Arthur Parker (Martin) is a sheet-music salesman, and has a world view not merely influenced but warped by the pop tunes he peddles. The brilliant conceit of the series and the film — both written by Dennis Potter — is to show this by having Arthur break into song and dance periodically, lip-synching to the original scratchy vinyl of songs like “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?” and “Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You.” The irony not only drips but pours.

Over the course of the film, Arthur’s world falls apart, largely due to his own selfishness and short-sightedness. For a moment, it seems like he might attain a measure of happiness with Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a schoolteacher. She becomes pregnant but, unknown to him, aborts the baby. They slip into a movie theater and, as in Purple Rose four years later, an Astaire-Rogers movie with music by Irving Berlin is on the screen, in this case Follow the Fleet.

Due to technical challenges, you might not hear what Eileen says at the beginning of the clip. It’s, “I might like to have that baby, and then…” More irony. Arthur, ever the music-addled, cock-eyed optimist, avers that “There’s got to be something on the other side of the rainbow.” In a lovely (though completely unrealistic) touch that shows the permeating power of the movies, Ross has Fred and Ginger’s images reflected on the real wall of the theater. Completely carried away, Arthur can’t help lip-synching to the big production number, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Then all of a sudden they are on the stage, in front of the screen, dance-synching to Astaire and Rogers. Finally, in the Sherlock Jr. touch, they join their own movie, black and white and elegant and so different from their tawdry reality.

A final note: the (picture-perfect) choreography is credited to Danny Daniels, but Ross surely made a huge contribution. The director started his career as a dancer, then was a choreographer for Broadway musicals, and incorporated dance into many of his movies, including The Turning Point, the biopic Nijnksy, the Baryshnikov vehicle Dancers, and — it must be said — Footloose.

 

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