Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ernst Lubitsch's wartime hit Heaven Can Wait will amuse casual viewers while captivating
fans of his inimitable style. His importance can be judged by the worship of his disciple Billy
Wilder, no slouch himself when it comes to clever screen comedy.
Heaven Can Wait flirts with bad taste (1943 bad taste) to tell the story of a philandering
husband convinced he's prime material for Satan's infernal domain. Lubitsch had been making light
of illicit affairs and other human foibles since the silent days, and still seems to be making a
case for looking the other way when swain Don Ameche enters the scene. We hardly ever see him do
anything deserving of a slap on the wrist, let alone a trip to Hell.
The film floats on charm, cute characters and witty dialog that supports its main thesis - love
and an impish smile conquer all. Top billed
Gene Tierney is adorable but the real star is the under-appreciated Don Ameche. He unfortunately
fell out of style, becoming the
epitome of cornball casting for playing the guy who invented the telephone.
Playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) voluntarily shows up at the devil's doorstep,
to ask Satan (Laird Cregar) to let him into his fiery domain without further fuss; he knows he's been
a faithless lout all of his life. Together they re-run Henry's story from his childhood in the 1880s
past his elopement with Martha, the fiancée of his own cousin (Gene Tierney) and onward
through decades of marriage. Henry's charm has always earned him the indulgence of his parents, the
encouragement of his grandfather (Charles Coburn), and the attentions of many women, and
Henry is convinced that trying his luck at the pearly gates would be pointless.
Critics familiar with more of Lubitsch's work may know of similar films, but Savant
was amused to see how well the director handled the idea of a comedy that spread out to include a
man's entire life, including part of his afterlife. Heaven Can Wait is a core
film blanc, one of those
fanciful movies that postulates a Heavenly afterlife, usually as some sort of waiting room in
the clouds where souls in transit face up to their sins. The problem most often is that some undone
business or unpaid debt back on Earth needs to be straightened out, and the rules of Heaven and
Earth have to be tweaked a little to ensure a happy ending.
Heaven Can Wait turns this situation into a parody as well, with the urbane Henry Van Cleave
showing up at Satan's reception room to pay the piper. Ol' Beezelbub is there in person. We see a
vain matron dropped through a fiery trap door, but Satan is intrigued by Henry's calm and asks to
hear his story.
What we get in flashback form is Henry's life, reduced to the fun parts. He learns about 'fun' from a
French maid and finds out that little girls like gifts in exchange for their company. Interestingly,
although the story alludes to a constant stream of girlfriends, lovers and affairs we see none of
them, just their effects. Henry's doting and slightly dense parents are easy touches for money; the
idea of this man working for a living is never given a thought.
The story covers a time from roughly 1870 to 1940, yet ignores the usual historical signposts.
There are no headlines of wars starting or stock markets crashing. Henry appears to live outside of
all of those petty concerns, in a world of his own interests. Hmmm ... womanizer, non-working
lounge lizard ... it's interesting that Henry could be considered a positive character in a movie
made during WW2. His type were usually played by Clifton Webb or Tom Conway, more often than not
as bad guys.
The secret is charm, a Lubitsch specialty. Henry's parents cave in and give him money whenever he
smiles. A few choice words in a bookstore ("You don't need a book called How to Make Your Husband
Happy!") and Henry has won the woman of his life, who turns out to be his snooty cousin's new
fiancé. Henry literally sweeps his conquest off her feet in front of their assembled
families, and gets away with it. After all, she only said yes to his cousin to get away from her
obnoxious parents (Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette).
Heaven Can Wait doesn't bother to make excuses for Henry's philandering and instead prefers to
lobby for his cause around the edges. Charles Coburn's delightful grandfather lives vicariously
through Henry's naughty adventures, inviting us to share his enthusiasm. Marriage as defined by
society is given a terrible beating. Henry's parents are a pair of sexless sweethearts living
in a bubble. Wife Martha's parents are lampooned in what would appear to be a takeoff of the
Citizen Kane domestic scene where Kane and his wife are at opposite ends of a long table.
Their marriage has deteriorated to the point where their servant has to carry messages from one end of
the table to the other.
We're also invited to feel sorry for Henry when his rooster feathers have gone gray and the showgirls
no longer see him as an attractive catch. Never mind that he still defines himself in terms of how
many female heads he can turn, we are assured he still loves Martha as deeply as ever. The movie
the confines of the Breen Code yet snubs its nose at most every tenet involving respect in marriage.
That's pretty good shootin' for Ernst and his ace screenwriter Samson Raphaelson.
Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it's a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside
in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost
forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her
comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits
like this one led to
Laura and mainstream stardom.
Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry's mom. Allyn Joslyn makes
a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don't care a bit. He has a
nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha
smiles, but cousin hasn't a prayer.
(spoiler) Henry, on the other hand, seems to have snookered Satan fairly well, although he seems sincere.
Satan overlooks all those implied marital indiscretions and puts Henry on the fast elevator
to the stars. The final bit of class in Heaven Can Wait is that it doesn't even need the kind
of romantic reunion scene that gushes forth in most movies of this subgenre - there's no direct
image of a movie star waiting for Henry at the pearly gates. All the better.
The Tod Andrews that plays Henry's grown son appears to indeed be the same Tod Andrews that later
battled a walking tree called Tabanga in the movie From Hell It Came (which would be
read well on a double bill marquee with Heaven Can Wait).
Criterion's DVD of Heaven Can Wait is a good transfer of a Technicolor original that never
looks too contrasty. Colors are rich and the sound track robust.
Veteran Criterion producer Karen Stetler assembles a list of extras that do a fine job of covering
a picture for which all the
creative talent have long since passed away. Critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris carry a spirited
discussion of the film, Critic's Corner-style. Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson is given his due
in a Bill Moyer's PBS Creativity with ... episode, where we see the crusty old playwright
advising theater students. Another Raphaelson extra is an audio recording of a seminar hosted by
Richard Corliss in 1977. Lubitsch's daughter hosts a photo montage over audio of the director
playing the piano. And there's an original trailer stressing the film's few bits of overt slapstick,
along with an insert essay by William Paul.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heaven Can Wait rates:
Supplements: Video conversation between Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris; Creativity
with Bill Moyers, a profile of screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, 1982; Audio seminar with Raphaelson
and critic Richard Corliss, 1977; Lubitsch home piano recordings photo montage, trailer, essay by
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson