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In Chicago during the 1930s depression, sheet music salesman Arthur Parker is trying to sell his products, but it's not easy to convince unwilling music store owners to buy them. Although he's already married to the somewhat drab Joan, when he meets school teacher Eileen in a music store, he falls in love with her. Written by
At least four paintings are recreated as "tableaux vivants" in the film: "Hudson Bay Fur Company" (1932) and "20 Cent Movie" (1936), both by Reginald Marsh, and "New York Movie" (1939) and "Nighthawks" (1942), both by Edward Hopper. Three of the four were painted after 1934, when the movie takes place, and all depict scenes in New York, not Chicago, the setting of the movie. Turner Classic Movies uses the "Fur Company" and "Nighthawks" shots in their "Open All Night" interstitial. See more »
The late Dennis Potter, who died ten years ago this month, was during his lifetime one of Britain's leading playwrights, but since his death his work has been neglected, largely because most of it was written for the medium of television. Although the BBC has an extensive archive of dramatic material, very little of this can ever be shown on the main terrestrial TV channels for fear of offending that vociferous lobby of viewers and critics which regards the showing of 'repeats' as an unworthy use of the license fee and which would rather view new programmes, however trashy, in preference to archive material, however brilliant.
I have not seen Potter's original television drama 'Pennies from Heaven' since it was first shown in the late seventies. I did, however, recently see the American film version of the series on television. (Feature films, however old they may be or however many times they may have been shown on television, are for some reason not classified as 'repeats', and thus are one of the few exceptions to the reluctance of British TV executives to screen older material). The film concerns the three-sided relationship between Arthur Parker, a sheet-music salesman during the depression years of the thirties, his wife Joan and his mistress Eileen. As the plot progresses, the characters frequently break into song to sing one of the popular songs of the era. (The actors, in fact, do not actually sing themselves but rather mime to the original recordings). The original TV drama was set in Britain, but the film has been relocated to Chicago- a change of no great significance, as even in the thirties Britain and America shared a common culture as far as popular music was concerned.
The film's main theme is the contrast between the harsh economic and social conditions of the period and the sugary nature of much of its popular music. The scenes showing the characters' everyday lives are grim in their subject-matter- the plot deals with adultery, prostitution, unemployment, poverty and murder. The look of these scenes is also bleak, with dull colours and a lack of decoration; some of the shots deliberately echo the paintings of Edward Hopper, the most cold-eyed and disenchanted painted of the age. Whenever the characters break into song, however, the scene changes and we are transported into the world of 1930s Hollywood musicals with their extravagant song-and-dance numbers. Although there were songs of protest and social comment in the thirties, all the numbers we hear in the film are sunny and light-hearted, either celebrating the joys of happy love or (like the title number) extolling a philosophy of shallow Panglossian optimism.
Like another reviewer on this board, I was struck by the film's obvious debt to Brecht and his theory of the 'Verfremdungseffekt', or 'alienation effect', which was still influential in the late seventies and early eighties. (The idea is that theatrical performances should be deliberately unrealistic so that the audience, rather than sympathising emotionally with the characters, will consider the play's themes rationally and objectively). Besides the final scene, the deliberately stilted acting and the sudden shifts from a sordid daily life to an escapist fantasy world emphasis the theatricality and unreality of the whole enterprise. The characters are certainly difficult to sympathies with on an emotional level. I have never been an admirer of Brecht either as a man or as an artist (his theories of 'non-Aristotelian drama' can make for some very tedious hours in the theatre, and I find it impossible to admire a man who continued writing propaganda for Soviet-style Communism throughout the era of the Stalinist terror), but it cannot be denied that his dramas had a serious purpose. I am not sure that this film does. Its political message really goes no further than saying that when times are hard people will tend to take refuge in optimistic or escapist entertainment.
The main quality of the film, in fact, seems to be the nostalgic appeal of the songs themselves and of the song-and-dance numbers into which they are introduced. Like, I suspect, many of my generation who grew up with the Beatles in the sixties and seventies, I have never taken much interest in the popular music of the pre-rock-and-roll era. Although this music was often tuneful and performed by talented artists, it has always struck me as bland and, despite its frequent theme of romantic love, too emotionally reticent to make much impact. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that in 1981 there were many of the older generation who remembered this style of music with affection and who may well have enjoyed the film for its nostalgic qualities rather than as a Brechtian cinematic experiment. In 2004, of course, the proportion of the public who actually have first-hand experience of the popular songs and film musicals of the 1930s is much less than it was in 1981. Today the film seems a strangely dated curiosity, an unsuccessful mixture of Brecht and Busby Berkeley. 5/10.
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