The premise at first seems quite a nice one. Henry Van Cleeve (Don Ameche, looking prematurely aged but still dapper in evening wear) comes down a staircase into a cavernous, Art Deco-inspired office where he is being interviewed by a dandy fellow referred to as His Excellency (Laird Cregar). Pretty soon it's clear Henry is actually dead, His Excellency is in fact Satan, and Henry is, for reasons that it will take the rest of the movie to explain, lobbying to be granted admission to Hades. Pressed for grievous offences or mortal sins, Henry can only say, "My whole life was one continuous misdemeanor."

Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one. Growing up in the mid-to-late 19th century, Henry is swaddled in privilege from the get-go. The scion of a wealthy family residing in a Fifth Avenue mansion, he becomes a general ne'er do well at quite a young age, something which the film (or at least his recounting) tries to blame on the effects of the women in his life (mother = too controlling, French maid = too permissive). By the time Ameche appears again as his younger self in the 1890s, his playboy ways have just been (supposedly) swept away by his having fallen in love with a beautiful woman whose name he doesn't know. Problem is, when he finally finds out the identity of the woman - Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney), of the Kansas City Strabels, who made their fortune in the meatpacking business - it turns out she's already betrothed to his stiff and deadly dull cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). Being of thin moral fiber anyway, Henry elopes with her. His carousing appears hard to put behind him, however, and 10 years later, Martha is ready for a divorce.

Continue reading: Heaven Can Wait (1943) Review