“I envy nobody and I’m sure nobody envies me.”
Bing Crosby’s film career had several distinct phases. The first lasted from the early until the late 1930s and found him under contract to Paramount, where he appeared in a succession of pictures that usually featured him as a sort of wandering troubadour with a carefree attitude to life and its responsibilities. In these films, songs were plentiful and it seemed as though there was always a pretty girl or two to win over. The co-starring or supporting cast members were generally strong and included the likes of Frances Farmer, W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, Fred MacMurray, Ethel Merman, Joan Bennett, Carole Lombard, and Burns and Allen.
After completing Rhythm on the Range in 1936, Bing exercised a contract option that he had to appear in an independent production. He worked with Emanuel Cohen (who had been previously been fired by Paramount) on the new production, a distribution arrangement for which had been negotiated with Columbia Pictures. The film was to be called Pennies from Heaven. Shooting was carried out during July and August 1936 with the film debuting in late November. The film received a reasonably warm reception, but its only lasting impression is the title song that was nominated for an Academy Award for 1936’s Best Song (losing out to “The Way You Look Tonight,” which had been written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for Swing Time).
Columbia has now released Pennies from Heaven on DVD in a fairly bare-bones edition.
Prison inmate Larry Poole is entrusted with a note from convict Hart, who is to be executed. Larry is to deliver the note to the Smith family in New Jersey when he gets out of prison. After traveling to New Jersey, Larry finds that the Smith family consists of Patsy, a precocious youngster who is continually in trouble with welfare worker Susan Sprague for skipping school, and Patsy’s grandfather, Gramp Smith. The pair is living on hard times, but the letter that Larry gives them turns out to be convict Hart’s retribution for killing Patsy’s father. He has given the Smiths his former hide-out, an old deserted house.
Larry comes up with an idea to turn the old house into a night-spot/café, but the idea turns sour when the band that Larry hires to play there is arrested for stealing the chickens that are being served as dinner at the café. Larry has also neglected to get a proper license for operating the café. He resorts to being a circus daredevil to pay off the café’s debts, and ends up in hospital as a result of a failed stunt. Meanwhile, facing poverty, Patsy is placed in an orphanage and Susan Sprague quits her job with the local welfare board in protest and leaves for New York.
Faced with Patsy in an orphanage and Susan having gone away, both of them people that he has grown very much attached to, Larry gets up from his sickbed to try to bring everyone back together.
I suppose at first blush that Pennies from Heaven seems a curious choice for a classic release from Columbia. I mean, I could think of many classic Columbia titles that I’d like to see on DVD ahead of this one. One presumes, however, that the appearance of a major star such as Bing Crosby as the headliner (his only appearance in a Columbia picture other than a cameo on 1960’s Pepe) and an important appearance by Louis Armstrong in the film were two of the reasons for the release. Certainly the latter is a valid consideration for making the film available to us. Bing owed an important component of his singing style to his exposure to Louis Armstrong and he never forgot the importance of that influence. So when he had the opportunity to make this independent film, he insisted that Louis Armstrong have a part in it. The part was not large, but it did involve one musical number (“Skeleton in the Closet”) and a couple of funny bits. Louis was fourth-billed, probably the highest a black performer had been billed in a white picture up to that time. With the success of his work in Pennies from Heaven, he began to appear regularly in Hollywood features thereafter.
The film, otherwise, was a standard Crosby vehicle for the time — no better and no worse than many others he did in the 1930s. The story line wasn’t too complex and was there mainly to allow Crosby to sing a few songs, get himself amiably in and out of trouble, and win the girl. It’s all over in just over 80 minutes and certainly doesn’t out-stay its welcome in that respect. Bing sings about half a dozen numbers, a couple of which are reprised. The title song “Pennies from Heaven” and “One, Two, Button Your Shoe” are both very appealing and memorable, but the others are pleasing as well even if you don’t find yourself humming them afterwards.
The acting support that Crosby receives from the rest of the cast is good. Thirteen-year old Edith Fellows (who plays Patsy) was a Hollywood veteran with over two dozen roles behind her already, although many were uncredited. She manages a brash, confident, and sassy manner that works well in the part, but is not overdone to the point of being unwelcome. Fellows found the transition to older roles difficult and she was out of films by 1942, only to resurface briefly four decades later. Patsy’s grandpa is portrayed by the familiar Donald Meek, whose last name aptly indicated the sort of roles he specialized in. You may remember him as the shy inventor of novelty toys from Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, coming February 2003 on DVD from Columbia. Madge Evans is fine as Crosby’s love interest, Susan. Interestingly, at age 27 she was almost at the end of a film career of over 80 pictures that began with child roles in 1914. Other than some television work in the late 1940s and early 1950s, she appeared in only four more films after Pennies from Heaven.
A novel by Katharine Leslie Moore, “The Peacock Feather,” was the inspiration for the film, as it was also for a 1978 British television miniseries starring Bob Hoskins and a 1981 Steve Martin film — both also called Pennies from Heaven. Other than a Depression era setting, there is virtually no similarity in either style or substance between the 1936 version and the latter two.
Columbia’s DVD release (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) is a very nice-looking effort particularly after the first five or ten minutes when the image looks somewhat variable in sharpness and is characterized by noticeable jumpiness. Thereafter, it settles down quite well and although there are lots of speckles and the occasional scratch, the image is sharp and clear with fine shadow detail. For an almost 70-year-old film that hasn’t received any particular restoration, the results are more than satisfactory.
The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and is in pretty good shape. Hiss is minimal and the songs have a degree of warmth to them, avoiding the tinniness that sometimes characterizes film music of the time. Columbia provides a very generous 28 scene selections for such a short film, including ones for all the musical numbers. Subtitles are available in English, French, and Japanese.
Supplementary content is minimal, consisting of trailers for It Happened One Night and Lost Horizon, but nothing for Pennies from Heaven.
I’m hoping that Columbia’s release of Pennies from Heaven is a harbinger of the company’s willingness to start delving more deeply into its 1930s catalog. Columbia has actually had quite a reasonable record in releasing classic catalog items to date, but greedy classic enthusiasts like me always want more. The chance to see some choice early items is welcome indeed. Pennies from Heaven, though hardly outstanding as a film, is a good example of easy-going mid-1930s entertainment with some fine songs and a good early opportunity to see the great Louis Armstrong. You could do much worse than pick up this disc. Recommended.