Mark Twain wrote a piece of literary criticism in which he warned that the writer should use the correct word, not its second cousin. A lazy author will exhume a seventy-five cent word from the thesaurus only to abandon the one-cent version that better tells the story. The results of thesaurus abuse can be comical as in the case of George W. Bush's first college essay. His mother gifted him with an extra large Roget's and admonished him not to repeat the same word twice. He sought a synonym for the "tear" on his cheek and the big book told him to use "lacerate" so he did. The rest is history.

My concern is for the more subtle abuses that only gently deceive the reader but cloud the message of the essay. If the writer is unaware of the meaning of the word "rapscallion" he may incorrectly and slanderously describe someone as a "scoundrel." These two terms were particular favorites of Mark Twain and he would spin in his grave at their juxtaposition. In honor of the great man I will attempt to illustrate, by example, the distinction between the two.


My buddies and I were perpetually broke in college. We had money for beer of course and my Dad sent me twenty bucks a week for cigarettes and sunflower seeds but there was never a surplus. We lived in a dormitory with a room and board contract so we knew we wouldn't starve to death but our empty pockets were a constant frustration. What we lacked in resources we had to make up for in resourcefulness.

We were up late one night in the dormitory lounge watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Dianna on CNN. The pomp and circumstance of the royal wedding led our discussion to our own mean financial straits and we agonized over the wasteful display. "You could buy a hundred thousand cases of beer with that one tiara." We passed the bottle of Yukon Jack, hurling drunken sarcasm at the happy couple and a grand time was had by all.

Someone suggested we pool our resources and buy some canned pop to mix with the whiskey. When the five of us emptied our pockets there wasn't even enough change for a single can of soda. At that very moment the CNN reporter mentioned that the estimated cost of the wedding was in the millions.

I was arranging our pathetic pile of pennies and dimes on the table and bemoaning our poverty when I was struck by a Heavenly inspiration. If you set a dime on top of a penny you'll notice that the dime sits perfectly within the ridge along the edge of the penny. It occurred to me that if you removed the ridge from the penny you'd end up with a copper colored dime. The importance of this discovery may be lost on the comfortable reader but in our desperate condition it was nothing short of alchemy.

We dispatched one group to scour the floors around the vending machines and under the couch cushions for stray pennies and another to search for a metal file. If I told you that it worked I would be confessing to a federal crime and that would be silly. Suffice it to say that we toasted the Royal pair with properly mixed beverages before a sumptuous buffet of Doritos, Snicker bars and ice cream sandwiches.


It is shocking to me that some people throw pennies on the ground. When I was a little boy my mother told me that they fell from Heaven and I believed her. To prove her theory she showed me that each was inscribed with the phrase "IN GOD WE TRUST" in capital letters. When I found out that people were discarding them as useless I was horrified.

I grew to love and respect the man whose image is pressed onto the face of each coin. "The Great Emancipator" silently comforts the poor and gives hope to the oppressed to this day. Abraham Lincoln, in his humility, directed that if they must use his image for currency that they choose the lowest possible denomination. He reminded me of Father Abraham in the Bible and taught me that you didn't have to reach back thousands of years to find an example of human virtue.

A scoundrel is someone who would discard a penny as worthless scrap. A rapscallion will bend some rules to prove the scoundrel wrong.

A jazz standard originally penned by Arthur Johnston and Johnny Burke, this song may have most the instances in record. The All Music Guide lists 413 albums it appears on. It has been played by everyone from Jerry Garcia to Count Basie. Other notable performers include: Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz, and Bing Crosby.

A happy little tune with cute little lyrics.

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven
Don't you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?

You'll find your fortune falling all over town
Be sure that your umbrella is upside down

Trade them for a package of sunshine and flowers
If you want the things you love, you must have showers

So when you hear it thunder, don't run under a tree
There'll be pennies from heaven for you and me

    The word penny has been used at least since the 8th century for an English coin. Originally of silver, the penny began to be minted from copper in 1797, and from bronze in 1860; coining of silver pennies for general circulation ceased with the reign of Charles II, although a small number have since been regularly coined as Maundy money. With decimalization in 1971 the traditional penny was replaced by a penny equal to one-hundredth of a pound and known for a time as the new penny.

The Oxford English Reference Dictionary

Oh yes Pennies from Heaven is a foot stomper, why the rhythm is absolutely contagious and set the music standards of the thirties and forties with its collage of free-associative quotes and comments. The Count Basie Orchestra gained national recognition as one of the most swinging jazz bands in the land. From classic hits like One O'Clock Jump and Pennies From Heaven to a string of great Basie band jazz such as Stop beatin Around The Mulberry Bush, Jumpin at the Woodside, Mama Don't Want No Peas 'N Rice 'N Coconut Oil, Cherokee and Oh Lady Be Good, Basie grew to be a legend during those years.

In the original movie Pennies From Heaven had characters that came alive when they imagine things happening. It was musical comedy where people daydreamed, filled with a gold mine classic sounds. Life is a song and dance to jazzy sounds and in the midst of this America was coming out of the Great Depression and World War I and moving towards the Cold War while Britain was about the fall into the morass of the Suez Affair. Louis Armstrong played a small role in the 1936 movie, where he bantered with Bing Crosby and sang a novelty called Skeleton in the Closet and it has been remade again and again as as a movie in the seventies starring Steve Martin as well as a TV series. William Grant Still was the songs originator. Frequently referred to as Dean of Afro-American composers the International Dictionary of Black Composers relates:

    (William Grant) Still had begun composing art music with the goal of incorporating the blues in a symphony. While working with W. C. Handy in Memphis and in New York in the late teens, he had developed an interest in black musical idioms and actively sought out authentic blues and spirituals, a practice he continued in New York. In his symphonies, art songs, and operas, Still drew upon African-American idioms as a source of inspiration and musical style. In two early works—Darker America (1924) and Levee Land (1925)—Still found that the "ultramodern idiom" was not compatible with African-American idioms. So, after leaving Varèse’s tutelage, he discarded the atonal, dissonant, and chromatic harmony of his early works and adopted what he referred to as "the racial idiom," composing in an accessible style that consciously embraced African-American musical traits. In 1934, aided by a Guggenheim fellowship, Still left New York and moved to Los Angeles, where he began to arrange and compose music for films, including the scores for Pennies from Heaven, Lost Horizon, and Stormy Weather.
It is the sources of the idiom that interests me the most. I wondered from where such a remarkable idea sprang?

In for a penny, in for a pound is an exhortation to total commitment to an undertaking, penny wise and pound foolish means in small expenditures but wasteful of large amounts, a pretty penny is a large sum of money and two a penny is easily obtained and so almost worthless.

Pennies from heaven are unexpected benefits and the penny drops is a colloquium that one understands at last. It's from this combination of ideas that the song title comes from the phrase :

    "the pennies from heaven drop through my soul "
It's not too far of a leap to make to this idiom from where Christ asks in the King James Version,

'Are not sparrows two a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father',
because 'two a penny' is a cliché; like the pennies that drop, and are offered for thoughts, the coin has no existence.

We must be rapscallion yes!? Forget the penny and bend ourselves to realization. It was my Sainted Irish Grandmother who would cry aloud, Did you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven?

From the piers of Old Orchard Beach and we would watch the hustle of people on the boardwalk in lines like freighters to the rows of boxcars. Everything was in motion. It was a frenzy of activity that seems a lifetime away from the tranquility of Holmesian books in my bedroom.

She was made of grit and energy born of the era and seized that penny for us from the scrappy planking, point to the In God We Trust as verifiable proof that a much beloved friend or relative who had passed over and gone on to heaven had indeed answered her prayers. Prayers she whispered to God during her daily Mass to send her a sign that this dearest of the heart had not forgotten and was keeping a watchful eye.

Without error she would insist she had prayed about three people and lo and behold there indeed would be a cluster of three pennies from heaven dropped down through her soul to comfort and tell her if they were head side up it was unexpected good fortune, a windfall, while tail side up forebode ominous warnings, trouble comes in threes she always worried.

Pennies from heaven continue to fall down through family souls, passed on as oral traditions, one to create conversations in which to tell daughters and sons about the rich characters that inhabited them. An opportunity to pass on a legacy, redeemed as a penny for their thoughts.

Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Director: Herbert Ross


Writing: Dennis Potter

The Backstory:

Steve Martin, high off of his successful debut film, The Jerk, wanted to make a Depression-era musical. This is fine, of course—no one doesn't like Depression-era musicals, right?—but there was one small stumbling block: Steve Martin couldn't sing.

Undaunted by what many would see as a rather critical failing if one were to be making a musical, he hit upon the perfect solution: the actors in his movie, rather than singing original songs (or even Depression-era songs), would lip-synch to 1920s songs as they danced! Brilliant! A quick call to Bernadette Peters (with whom he had co-starred in The Jerk), and Pennies from Heaven (adapted from a British miniseries by the same author) was born.

The Bloodshed:

The plot of this movie unfolds as if the viewer is in a dream, albeit a hideous, NyQuil-induced dream. Arthur Parker (Martin), a sheet-music salesman in Depression-era Chicago, is weary of his humdrum existence, and especially of his his frigid wife Joan (Harper). While at a music store (of course), Arthur falls in love with Eileen (Peters), and abandons his wife to live in sin with the petite schoolteacher. Only slightly more repulsive to the viewer than his utter abandonment of Joan is the intricate web of deceit that he spins in convincing Eileen to take him in. The film then follows Arthur as he lurches between his wife and his mistress, obviously torn between them but too morally repugnant and slimy to make us care. The plot takes some more turns from here, but there is absolutely no reason for you or any right-thinking person to care about them.

The Aftermath:

Pennies from Heaven is, without qualification or excuse-making, the worst film I have ever seen in my entire life. The Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequences, though well-executed, make no sense in the context of the plot. Our protagonist, Arthur, is unsympathetic to the point of inciting hatred, and is woefully incapable of provoking sympathy, or even interest, regarding his desperate actions.

The pacing and editing is no less wretched than the plot itself. It's altogether possible to make the argument that director Herbert Ross had never seen an actual movie before, as he clearly had no idea as to what one was supposed to look like. To name only one instance of this incompetence, at one point we are treated to seeing, from a third-party perspective, Arthur watch a blind girl walk down the street towards him. Very. Very. Slowly. Finally, she passes him and he watches her walk away. Very. Very. Slowly. End of scene. (Incidentally, the only other time we will see her is after she has been murdered, for no apparent reason, by the accordion-playing man. I swear to God this is the truth.) By the time the completely (and I do mean completely) illogical ending rolls around, we are too numb to take note, or even do much else, save punching spasmodically at the "Eject" button and sheathing the videotape back in its carapace, until it is inflicted upon another unwitting soul.

What else can I possibly say about this excercise in futility and pain? Except for a brief dance sequence by Christopher Walken (which, you guessed it, happens for no apparent reason), this film has no redeeming qualities whatever. Many people, I have found in my search for more information on this stinker, claim that it is "fascinating" or a "unique, amazing film," but these people are all insane. Stay away.

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