On Tuesday, July 22 the Castro Theatre concludes its tribute to the late cinematographer Gordon Willis with a double bill of Pennies from Heaven (1981) and The Landlord (1970). In 2012, the International Cinematographers Guild named Gordon Willis to its list of Top 10 Most Influential Cinematographers. Among his works are The Godfather (Parts 1–3), Klute, All the President's Men, Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, etc. Pennies from Heaven is one of the most beautifully photographed musicals ever produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Gayer. Coming in with a budget of $22 million, the film contains a song list straight from The Great American Songbook and which would stand-up to and challenge any film currently running in sing-along format.
The amazing roster of vocalists heard in the soundtrack include Arthur Tracy in a complete version of the title song along with Elsie Carlisle (The Clouds Will Soon Roll By), Connee Boswell (I'll Never Have to Dream Again), the Boswell Sisters (It's the Girl), Sam Browne and the Carlyle Cousins (Yes, Yes!), Bing Crosby (Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?), Phyllis Robins (Love Is Good for Anything That Ails You), Rudy Vallee (Let's Put Out the Lights and Go to Sleep), Dolly Dawn (It's a Sin to Tell a Lie), Helen Kane (I Want to Be Bad), Walter S. Harrah (Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries), Fred Astaire (Let's Face the Music and Dance), Lew Stone (The Glory of Love), Jack Miller (Singing In The Rain), and more.
While the film is timeless in so many ways – in view of this week’s current events, two of its musical sequences contain elements of jaw-dropping irony. Irving Berlin’s 1936 hit song, Let's Face the Music and Dance, begins with the lyrics, “There may be trouble ahead, but while there's moonlight and music and love and romance – let's face the music and dance.” Written in the height of the Great Depression for Fred Astaire in the sort-of light propaganda musical, Follow the Fleet, the song most definitely reflects the growing tension over Hitler’s rise in Germany and the fiery spread of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s dream of political repression – the so-called “Great Purge”. Nightclubbing might have to be put on hold for a while. Fred continues, “Soon, we'll be without the moon, humming a different tune and then – there may be tear drops to shed.”
The title song, Pennies from Heaven is sung by Ukrainian-born Arthur Tracy (Abba Avrom Tracovutsky) who was seven years old when he and his parents immigrated to the United States in 1906. Affectionately known as, “The Street Singer”, Tracy’s warm and gentle tenor range was perfectly suited for live broadcasts, making him one of the most successful vocalists in prime time radio. His recordings on Amazon and YouTube reveal an optimistic crooner whose style and delivery is the stuff of long-lasting passion on the sunnier side of the street. In spite of Bing Crosby’s appealing rendition of the song in the 1936 film, also titled Pennies from Heaven, and the success of his subsequent recording on the Decca label, the producers of the 1981 film went for Arthur Tracy’s recording released in 1937. Along with Tracy’s slightly accented pronunciation and lofty delivery, the rendition packs the needed punch for the atmosphere surrounding Steve Martin and Vernel Bagneris – the pathetic but wry and hopeful “Accordion Man”. As the song progresses, Bagneris breaks into his whimsical / somewhat steamy dance amidst a shower of glittering pennies. The hope-filled serenade by composer Arthur Johnston and lyricist Sunny Burke is made all the more inviting because of Tracy's smooth phrasing and classic line.
Arthur Tracy’s other major hits include Marta, When I Grow Too Old To Dream, The Way You Look Tonight, Lovely To Look At, East of the Sun, In My Solitude, and September In The Rain. His recordings capture the style and finesse of a certain mode of popular singing that continues to influence American songwriting.