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Larry Poole, in prison on a false charge, promise an inmate that when he gets out he will look up and help out a family. The family turns out to be a young girl, Patsy Smith, and her elderly grandfather who need lots of help. This delays Larry from following his dream and going to Venice and becoming a gondolier. Instead he becomes a street singer and, while singing in the street, meets a pretty welfare worker, Susan Sprague. She takes a dim view of Patsy's welfare under the guardianship of Larry and her grandfather, and starts proceedings to have Patsy placed in an orphanage. Written by
Les Adams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (Columbia, 1936), directed by Norman Z. McLeod, no relation to the 1981 musical of that same title featuring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, stars Bing Crosby, on loan from his home studio of Paramount, in a forgettable but likable story with a notable title tune that underscores the film opening credits, presenting pennies falling from the thundering clouds above bouncing to the wet ground below. Crosby's character of Larry Poole is a drifter who lives a day-to-day existence tossing a feather into the air and heading the direction where the feather goes. He also passes the time singing by songs with the use of a 13th century flute, an instrument occasionally mistaken for a guitar. His biggest dream in life is to go to Venice, Italy, and ride on the gondolas, which, at present, seems unlikely.
In the story's fade-in, Larry, serving time in prison on a supposed smuggling charge, with one more week to go before his released, is met by a man Hart (John Gallaudet), a condemned prisoner on his way to the electric chair to die for his crime, who wants Poole, the only man he trusts, to deliver a letter to a family named Smith of Middletown, New Jersey, and explains his reasons. After Poole grants him this last request, Hart is then escorted down his last mile through the green doors. Following this dramatic scene opener, quite unusual for a musical-comedy, finds the pardoned Larry drifting along to a carnival where he encounters a pre-teen but tough little girl (Edith Fellows) being cheated at a game booth by a slick barker (who charges a dime for a throw of six rings). Larry helps her to win her prize by letting her know how she's getting cheated and threatens the carnival barker that there will be a loud call of "Hey, rube!" if he doesn't come up with the prize. The girl in turn gets it. Larry then tells her, "Thank the nice man." Girl to barker: "Thank you ... YOU CROOK!" After making the acquaintance with Patsy and later her grandfather (Donald Meek), who are flat broke and in financial need, and learning that their last name is Smith, Larry finds that they are the Smiths he's been searching for. He then presents them with the letter in question. It is learned that Hart's last request was that the family of the man he killed (Patsy's father) should inherit a large country estate that once belonged to his family. Upon arrival to the old mansion via hayride, they have second thoughts when finding the run-down mansion might possibly be haunted. With the help of the positive-thinking Larry, he happens upon an idea of turning the old place into a roadside restaurant called the Haunted House Cafe. The second half of the story focuses on Susan Sprague (Madge Evans), a county welfare agent, who feels Patsy, an incorrigible child who has been skipping school, isn't being brought up in the right atmosphere, especially when Patsy is bonding with a man who had spent time in prison, thus, threatening to take her away.
Aside from Crosby's easy-going personality and his easy-listening crooning, Madge Evans' blonde beauty and Edith Fellows' temper tantrums controlled only by Crosby, whose "taming of the shrew" is through his singing, the supporting cast also features a very young Louis Armstrong as Henry, the hired hand, trumpeter and vocalist of the Haunted House Cafe; Nana Bryant as Mrs. Howard; Charles C. Wilson as the Warden; and character actress Nydia Westman appearing briefly as the landlady.
Nice tunes, compliments of songwriters Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston include: "So Do I" (sung by Bing Crosby); "Pennies From Heaven" (sung by Crosby to Edith Fellows during a thunder storm); "Skeleton in the Closet" (sung by Louis Armstrong); "Let's Call a Heart a Heart" (sung by Crosby to Madge Evans); "Pennies From Heaven" (reprise); "One, Two, Button My Shoe" (sung by Crosby and orphan children); "So Do I" and "One, Two, Button My Shoe" (reprise/finale).
As in most Crosby musicals of the 1930s and '40s, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN is a likable production no different from the movies he has done over at his home studio at Paramount. Along with the film, young Edith Fellows, who resembles a youthful Jane Powell, in a performance that could have been played by another registered movie "brat" named Bonita Granville, is as forgotten as this movie itself. PENNIES FROM HEAVEN will go on record as her best known film work, for that her subsequent features, mostly for Columbia, have been minor programmers that remain hidden in the land of oblivion. Her chemistry with Crosby registers well here. Aside from the screen characters, the movie includes some interesting camera angles worth mentioning. One that stands in mind is the introductory scene between Crosby and Fellows as they are leaving the carnival. After she asks him what his name is, the camera focuses to the girl's point of eye-view from the bottom up as Crosby's character, appearing quite taller, looks down and answers her question. A similar such scene occurs later as Crosby sings to the tune of "So Do I" while Fellows does some street dancing to earn some extra money as the tenement people throw some loose change from their apartment windows above. While there are enough good songs to go around, only "Pennies from Heaven" remains legendary, earning an Academy Award nomination as Best Song of 1936, losing to "The Way You Look Tonight" from SWING TIME (1936).
Available on DVD and shown on Turner Classic Movies(TCM premiere: December 5, 2005), PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, which which runs 81 minutes, is worthy screen entertainment made palatable by its good songs and fine supporting cast. (***)
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