“I can safely say that my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor”
Possibly my first true screwball comedy, definitely my first Ernst Lubitsch film, Heaven Can Wait lived up to the reputation of being a well made, laughter filled time. Sure it is a bit dated at times, but overall I believe the message and events occurring transcend age, probably due in small part to the fact that the film spans eighty or so years. Henry Van Cleve has passed away and knowing that he would probably have too much trouble getting into heaven, he decides to go to the place many have told him to go during life…hell.
I really enjoyed the rapport between Don Ameche (Van Cleve) and Laird Cregar (His Excellency/Satan). Cregar has a lot of charisma and is a nice change of pace from most guardians of the underworld. He has a strict code of rules, not just anyone can receive eternal damnation; one has to have earned it in spades. The fact that Ameche is trying to get in quickly, so as not to have to worry, is great, especially since he has to prove why. Of course as many stories of this ilk show, it’s the women of his life that he must speak of to explain why he has sinned. It’s a shame that there weren’t any intercuts showing the two of them in Hell sitting and discussing Henry’s life. The bookends to the film are nice, but it almost seems a shame to have seen Cregar so little.
Based on a play, Heaven Can Wait stands up well as a film. It is very much a dialogue driven movie, yet there are some great visual moments included as well. The script is great, sprinkled with dry sarcasm along with some laugh-out-loud moments and some surreal absurdities. Don Ameche is very effective as the Casanova who can’t help himself even when he has the woman of his dreams. That woman, played by Gene Tierney, shows great comic timing to play off of the manipulative Ameche. She is a beautiful actress and can act very well. Tierney needs to play every emotion possible to show the ebbs and flows of their relationship while still retaining the love she has for her husband through all the tough times. Sure the whirlwind chance meeting which leads to their eloping is hilarious, and the rescue from Kansas plays out with almost a slapstick feel—especially between Tierney’s character’s parents and their funny papers—however, the real shining moment is their final dance together. Their love is displayed for all to see as they twirl in solitude while the rest of the party is seen through the opening between rooms. The moment is both beautiful and heartbreaking all at once.
I must say I was a big fan of the film and will seek out more Lubitsch in the future. Trouble in Paradise, available on Criterion DVD along with this film, and probably his most recognized work, Ninotchka with Greta Garbo, tops the list to check out. A great script, talented ensemble cast (look for comic genius from Charles Coburn and his baseball bat in heaven) as discussed, and superb make-up work (Don Ameche as eighty actually looks like he did at eighty, see Cocoon and a more cynical take on his character here in Trading Places) are molded deftly together to create a nostalgic look on life and those that one touches during his time on earth.
Heaven Can Wait 8/10 | ★ ★ ★