As a general rule of thumb, I avoid romantic comedies like the plague. I know some people love them, but the stale sweetness that they're usually chock full of tends to be a real turn off for me – maybe it means I'm in insensitive jerk, maybe it means I've got weird taste, I'm not sure, but the point is I think most romantic comedies suck and suck hard. Heaven Can Wait, a beautifully made film from 1943 starring Gene Tierney and Don Amache is one of those rare exceptions to the rule.
The story revolves around Henry Van Cleve (Amache), a suave playboy type who loves to live the good life. Henry hasn't exactly been a model citizen though, he's a cheat and a bit of a sneak. Coming to terms with himself, he decides to voyage on down to Hell where he talks Satan himself (played with devilish glee by Laird Cregar) into allowing him entrance to the fiery inferno that is his domain. Henry's a sinner, and he knows it.
Once he's in the land of the devil, he and ol' scratch take a trip down Henry's memory lane and we learn his story from the very beginning where, as a child, he was rather spoiled which carried on into adulthood. As a man, Henry fell for his cousin's fiance, Martha Strabel (Tierney), and off they go to be married in secret. Henry, being the slickster that he was, had trouble staying faithful to his beautiful wife, however, and his good looks and considerable charm allowed him to have his pick of women throughout the years. Will Henry, in turn, be able to use that same wit and charm to convince the good Lord above to allow him entry into Heaven, or will he burn for all eternity?
This is one of those classic films in which everything comes together nicely, almost perfectly. The performances, especially from Tierney and Amache, are literal manifestations of what one usually associates with the classic films of the forties and the two leads embody all the charm, grace, wit, style and class that you'd expect them to. The photography and set design accentuates the performer's qualities almost to the letter and humor used throughout the film is just dark enough to work on a cerebral level that modern romantic comedies don't even try to touch.
Lubitsch's direction is strong and clever, making use of some interesting camera movements and clever editing to keep the pacing of the film tight enough to be interesting but slow enough to allow the dialogue and comedy to unfold naturally. Much of the credit for this should also go to screenwriter Samson Raphealson, who based his script on the play Birthday by Lazlo Bus-Fekete. The storyline toys around with some interesting theological ideas and themes and does so in such a way that much of the humor comes across as satirical, again, atypical for what is essentially a funny love story. The vision of Hell that the filmmakers created for the film is also worth mentioning, complete with trap doors and organ music filling the sitting room which acts as an entry way for the damned.
The 1.33.1 fullframe transfer presents the film in its original aspect ratio and, as is to be expected from Criterion, it looks great. While there are a few flaws evident in the source material in the form of some mild grain and minute instances of print damage via the odd speck here and there, for the most part things look great on this DVD. The color reproduction in particular looks excellent, and the various hues used throughout the film in various compositions are vibrant and well defined. The black levels waver a little bit and there is some mild shimmering in a few scenes but for a film of its age, Heaven Can Wait really does look very, very good.
Likewise, the English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix present on this DVD is also very nicely done. Dialogue is clean and clear and free of any hiss or distortion while the levels for the sound effects and the music used throughout the movie are properly balanced and sound quite good. Optional English subtitles are also provided.
First up, a far as the extra features are concerned, is a twenty-five minute long discussion with Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris, both noted film critics. Harris discusses how Heaven Can Wait fits into the auteur theory as it relates to the classic cinema of Hollywood while Haskell backing him up with her own, similar opinions on the film. These two are married in real life and they have a very comfortable dynamic together, which makes the discussion interesting and at times rather humorous.
Up next is a half hour program entitled Creativity With Bill Moyers – A Portrait Of Samson Raphealson which originally aired on PBS in 1982. This is an interesting look at Raphaelson's career from beginning to end with Moyer's doing a very good job of filling in some of the blanks un regards to the screenwriter's history in Hollywood. Raphealson appears on camera throughout the piece and is quite enthusiastic about discussing his work, which makes for a fun and informative viewing.
Raphealson At The Museum Of Modern Art is an audio recording of the screenwriter's discussion with Richard Corliss from his 1977 appearance. Again, he comes across as good natured and he has a lot to talk about in terms of his work during Hollywood's golden era.
Rounding out the extra features is a four minute segment entitled Ernst Lubitsch – A Musical Montage which features an introduction from Nicola Lubitsch which segues into some recordings of the director playing piano in his home with various family photographs displayed over top. There's a trailer, a gallery of publicity photographs, and a pressbook reproduction on the DVD and inside the keepcase are liner notes from Film scholar William Paul.
A moving and decidedly odd comedy, Heaven Can Wait gets the treatment it deserves on DVD from The Criterion Collection who have loaded a great looking and sounding disc with interesting and relative extra features. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.