Bing Crosby and Madge Evans in Pennies from Heaven (1936)


(director: Norman Z. McLeod; screenwriters: from the novel “The Peacock’s Feather”by Katherine Leslie Moore/Jo Swerling/story by William Rankin; cinematographer: Robert Pittack; editor: John Rawlins; music: Johnny Burke/Howard Jackson/Arthur Johnston/Louis Silvers/William Grant Still/John Scott Trotter; cast: Bing Crosby (Larry Poole), Madge Evans (Susan Sprague), Edith Fellows (Patsy Smith), Louis Armstrong (Henry), Donald Meek (Gramps), John Gallaudet (J.C. Hart), William Stack (Welfare Boss), Nana Bryant (Miss Howard); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Emanuel Cohen; Columbia; 1936)
“Trifle about a penniless troubadour with a heart of gold.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This musical dramedy is based on the 1913 novel “The Peacock’s Feather” by Katherine Leslie Moore. Director Norman Z. McLeod (“Horse Feathers”/”Alice in Wonderland”/”It’s a Gift”) doesn’t do much with this slight Hollywood hokum musical, but the crooning of star Bing Crosby, a big radio star at the time, especially his version of the title song, keeps things fairly respectable. The other treat has Louis Armstrong perform “Skeleton in the Closet” with Lionel Hampton on the drums, giving the black performer a starring role for the first-time in a mainstream film. The breezy Depression-era film effectively uses poverty as a background for its trifle about a penniless troubadour with a heart of gold.

While the lute-playing drifter Larry Poole (Bing Crosby) is in the slammer on minor charges, murderer J. C. Hart (John Gallaudet) before going to the electric chair gives him a letter to deliver to the Smith family of Middletown, NJ, when he shortly gets released (why Bing is on Death Row is never explained!). Upon delivering the letter, the easy going Larry learns that the precocious waif Patsy (Edith Fellows) lives with her good-natured grandpa (Donald Meeks), and that Hart feels remorseful that he killed her father and leaves her his hideaway house in Middletown. Larry helps the impoverished twosome move into the house after they’re dispossessed from their previous digs. It turns out the locals think the spooky house is haunted, but Larry convinces the other two that the free house is too good a deal to pass on. Prim welfare social worker Susan Sprague (Madge Evans) frets over Patsy being truant and that her men caretakers have no income to support her, and threatens to send her to the orphanage unless a way to support the child can be arranged. Patsy talks the men into opening up a restaurant/nightclub called the Haunted House Cafe, serving chicken dinners and musical entertainment courtesy of Bing and Louie. Predictably a romance materializes between the social worker and the singer, as well as many problems with the restaurant that Larry must solve (such as neglecting to get a proper license for operating the café and chicken thefts).

The sentimental genial film is too lightweight and standard to be anything but a forgettable Bing musical.