Pennies from Heaven (1981): Herbert Ross Depression-Set Musical Starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters

Adapted from Dennis Potter’s British TV miniseries, now set during the Depression, Pennies from Heaven dramatizes how popular songs reflected the thoughts of people living through the economic and emotional hardship of the era.

Pennies from Heaven

Steve Martin plays Arthur Parker, a sheet music salesman who dreams about opening his own store. But he can’t get a bank loan and his wife Joan (Jessica Harper) refuses to give him the money she had inherited from her father.

While on the road, Arthur meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a shy schoolteacher, desperate for love. They begin an affair, which leads to tragedy for both.

Punctuating the drama are lavish and elaborate musical numbers in which the characters lip-synch to popular songs of the day, which lift their hopes and reflect their fears.

Arthur’s tap number to “My Baby Said Yes” and Eileen’s rendition of “Love is Good for Anything That Ails You” are reflections of their needs. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is extremely touching in capturing their hopelessness.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Screenplay (Adapted): Dennis Potter

Sound: Michael J. Kohut, Jay M. Harding, Richard Tyler, Al Overton

Costume Design: Bob Mackie

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Adapted Screenplay was Ernie Thompson for On Golden Pond.

The Sound Oscar went to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Milena Canonero won the Costume Oscar for Chariots of Fire.


Directed by Herbert Ross
Produced by Rick McCallum, Herbert Ross, Nora Kaye

Screenplay by Dennis Potter, based on Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter
Music by Ralph Burns, Con Conrad, Marvin Hamlisch, Billy May

Cinematography Gordon Willis
Edited by Richard Marks

Production company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distributed by United Artists

Release date: December 11, 1981

Running time: 108 minutes
Budget $22 million
Box office $2.4 million