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.
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 stays within 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: