Pennies from Heaven is a 1981 musical film. The film was based on a 1978 BBC television drama. In 1981, Dennis Potter adapted his own screenplay for a film of the same name for American audiences, with its setting changed to Depression era Chicago. Potter was nominated for the 1981 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay, but lost to On Golden Pond. The film starred Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Christopher Walken and Jessica Harper. The director was Herbert Ross and the choreographer was Danny Daniels.
In 1934, Chicago sheet-music salesman Arthur Parker (Martin) is having a hard time, both in his business and at home with his wife Joan (Harper). His business is failing and Joan is not amorous enough for Arthur and refuses to give him the money she inherited from her father to start his own business.
Arthur's dream is to live in a world that is like the songs he tries to sell. He is refused a bank loan, although he fantasizes that he gets it to a song and dance routine of "Yes! Yes!!". In his travels, Arthur meets a shy, beautiful but plain school teacher, Eileen (Peters). Arthur expresses his instant attraction by lip-synching to the song "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?", as Eileen, converted to a brighter version of herself, dances. He convinces her that he loves her and they embark on a short affair, but Arthur leaves her and returns to Joan, who, desperate to keep him, agrees to give him the money he wanted. Arthur denies his affair, though Joan is sure he is lying, singing "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie".
Eileen is optimistic about her affair with Arthur, imagining leading her class in "Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You", but she becomes pregnant and is fired. With nowhere to go, she is then taken in by stylish pimp Tom (Walken). Eileen is attracted to Tom's "badness" (the same way she was attracted to Arthur), and fantasizes him singing "Let's Misbehave" to her. The attraction ends there, however, as it is quite clear that Tom means business, and arranges for her to have an abortion.
When Arthur meets Eileen again—as "Lulu"—she is now a prostitute and has adopted an aggressive manner. They resume their romance, and Eileen leaves Tom and her sordid life. Impulsively, Arthur convinces her to run away together. Having failed to sell his business, Arthur and Eileen break into the store one night and trash it, smashing its phonograph records (except for "Pennies From Heaven"). To supplement their income, Eileen keeps prostituting in spite of Arthur's objections.
A blind girl is raped and killed by an accordion-playing hobo (Bagneris) that Arthur gave a ride to earlier in the film, and innocent Arthur (who crossed paths with the girl prior to the murder) is captured and convicted of the crime. At the gallows, he recites the lyrics from the song "Pennies from Heaven", as if trying to tell the audience not to take life for granted as he had. In one final fantasy, Arthur and Eileen wind up in a dream-happy ending set to "The Glory of Love", with Arthur saying, "We've worked too hard not to have a happy ending."