Larry Poole (Bing Crosby) is a talented musician and drifter who has landed himself in jail. Fellow convict Hart (John Gallaudet) visits Larry on the way to his own execution and gives him a letter, asking Larry to deliver it to the Smith family in New Jersey once he gets out of prison.
Finally free from his jail cell, Larry is able to track down the Smiths after three weeks of travel, meeting young Patsy (Edith Fellows) and her grandfather (Donald Meek). He also meets Susan Sprague (Madge Evans), a welfare worker who knows that the state wants to send Patsy to an orphanage.
Larry gives Hart’s letter to Gramp Smith and finds that the letter contains the key to Hart’s old hideout — a supposedly haunted house. Could this be the answer to all of their problems, saving Patsy from the orphanage and Larry from a penniless future?
Norman Z. McLeod directs 1936’s Pennies from Heaven, written for the screen by Jo Swerling.
“Pennies from Heaven” is an iconic song, one I’ve loved for many years, so I was excited to finally watch the film that introduced Bing Crosby’s rendition to the world. There are plenty of fun songs featured in the film aside from that wonderful title track, too. Louis Armstrong appears as a singer/trumpeter named Henry, singing the delightfully spooky “Skeleton in the Closet” number, as well as playing a tune with Crosby — “Let’s Call a Heart a Heart.”
Despite dealing with the subject matter of poverty, Pennies from Heaven is for the most part a very light and fluffy musical comedy. And though it involves a haunted house, the film avoids the silly, slapstick-y laughs you might expect from the spooky setting.
The film’s performances are very fine. Crosby is surprisingly believable in his ex-con/drifter role, though he cleans up to be a very suave ex-con/drifter. I always associate Crosby with the persona of a classy gent, but aside from the “Let’s Call a Heart a Heart” scene, he does a good job of embodying the “troubadour.”
Madge Evans is also wonderful in the role of Susan Sprague. She comes off quite stern at times, but it’s obvious that she cares a lot about her job and about Patsy’s future in particular. She wants Patsy to get an education, to be properly fed and cared for. She doesn’t want to see Patsy sent to the orphanage, but she knows it’s practically inevitable, which is why she puts so much effort into Patsy’s case.
A sweet film, with sweet tunes and lovable characters. What’s not to enjoy? Pennies from Heaven is a delight not only for Bing Crosby fans, but for anyone who loves musicals.