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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Pennies from Heaven (1936)

"Gee, I'd hate to be someone that makes people run away all the time."
- Larry Poole (Bing Crosby)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: January 26, 2003

Stars: Bing Crosby, Madge Evans, Edith Fellows, Louis Armstrong
Other Stars: Donald Meek, John Gallaudet, William Stack, Nana Bryant, Tommy Dugan, Nydia Westman
Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:20m:46s
Release Date: January 28, 2003
UPC: 043396085640
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-A-B- D

DVD Review

With the recent resurgence of interest in the form of the musical, some of the earlier and more peculiar essays in the form are being resurrected from the vault. Columbia is not exactly well known today for its musicals, but here comes one that boasts an Oscar® nomination for best song for the title tune. The fact that it stars Bing Crosby in full-out crooner mode doesn't hurt any.

Few musicals begin on death row, but this one does as Hart (John Gallaudet) is about to walk the last mile. He entrusts a letter for the Smith family in Middletown, New Jersey to crooning prisoner Larry Poole (Der Bingle), who is due for release shortly. In Middletown, the wandering troubador runs across little Patsy Smith (Edith Fellows) and her Gramps (Donald Meek), who are perpetually being evicted. The letter turns out to contain a key to a house Hart owns out in the country. After some unwillingness to accept help from Hart, the man who killed Patsy's father, Gramps concedes and they move in. As Larry prepares to move on, he learns that social worker Susan Sprague (Madge Evans) intends to have Patsy placed in an orphanage since Gramps is unemployed. Larry hits on the idea of turning the spooky old house into the Haunted House Café, with house band featuring Henry (Louis Armstrong) and an uncredited Lionel Hampton. But disaster looms as Larry overpromises ownership in the café to wheedle the necessary equipment and supplies.

More than just about any other musical I've seen, this is a creature of the Depression through and through. The picture is permeated from beginning to end with unemployment, the hard economic times and desperation, even Gramps' futile faith in the Townsend Plan: a scheme to force everyone to retire at age 60 and instead collect $200 per month, the hugely popular Plan provoked adoption of the Social Security Act. The glitz and glamour of the Broadway musicals of Fred Astaire are hardly conceivable in the bleak world inhabited by Larry and the Smiths. At the same time, the dreams of Larry do revolve around a fantasy world in Venice, not unlike that featured in the standard movie musical.

Crosby essentially plays himself, as usual, but is of course charming. He is saddled with a 13th-century lute instead of a guitar, in a vain attempt to paint him as a modern troubador. Madge Evans as the social worker is stiff and insincere, and her chemistry with Crosby is absolutely zero. Edith Fellows is moderately talented, but like so many child actors falls victim to the temptation to declaim her lines mightily. Long-serving character actor Donald Meek makes for an excellent Gramps, believably putting all his faith in the doomed Townsend Plan and feebly providing a home for Patsy. Armstrong provides an energetic performance in a smaller role, but is surrounded by some unfortunate, racially-flavored humor relating to the haunted house theme and stealing chickens.

The result is fairly oddball, and its Depression flavor makes it an interesting historical document. Unfortunately, other than the classic title song the tunes by Johnny Burke and Arthur Johnston are mostly forgettable.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: For a film over 65 years old, this looks terrific. There is good detail, the greyscale is very wide and deep blacks are present. Textures are good as well. There is only occasional speckling, but in the first reel there are some jarring frame jitters. Overall, though, it's quite satisfactory.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: For the most part, the audio transfer is quite quiet, without significant hiss or noise. There are, however, spots in the last reel that have substantial hiss and crackle. The dialogue is quite clear and captures the gentle rasp of Crosby's voice as well as the gravelly rattle of Armstrong's equally well. The music tends to be rather tinny and distorted, but that's hardly a surprise in pictures of this vintage. Don't expect any deep bass or immediacy of presence. What's here sounds pretty good overall, though, considering the age of the material.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 9 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Japanese with remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: There's just about nothing here for extras beyond a beaten up trailer for two Capra pictures, the relevance of which is zero beyond being 1930s pictures from Columbia. Oddly enough, Japanese subtitles are provided, but not Spanish ones. Chaptering is the usual 28 stops utilized by Columbia Tristar, which is more than adequate for a picture of this brevity.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

A peculiar musical with a Depression flair, in surprisingly attractive condition. But not much at all in the way of extras.


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