Heaven Can Wait (1943) Movie Review

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.

By this point in the film, most viewers will start to wonder: What is the bloody point of all this? It's a good question and one that the film barely starts to answer. For a film supposedly centered on Henry's profligate womanizing, we see little evidence of it. Instead of following Henry to the nightclubs and theaters where he woos his affairs, Lubitsch shows us instead scene after turgid scene of Martha and Henry debating the worthiness of their relationship and whether or not he will be able to change. There are some fine comic moments provided by Charles Coburn (as Henry's wonderfully sarcastic grandfather) and Martha's hayseed parents, but they seem to have dropped in from another film.

Simply put, Ameche is an excellent actor and romantic lead, but he's far too much the dapper gentleman here to ever seem like the womanizer he's supposed to be - Lubitsch would have been better casting somebody livelier in the lead and keeping Ameche for his wonderfully resonant narration. And the less said about Tierney's sleepwalking performance, the better. Neither of them seem able to generate much passion about each other, so it's quite difficult to understand why, at the end of his life, Henry feels the need to punish himself so.

Being a Lubitsch film, this is a handsome production, of course, with a good number of sharply crafted verbal exchanges. But it's far too little to make up for the emptiness that lies at the core of the film's conceit.

Whatever the merits of the film itself, the Criterion Collection has once again put together a very respectable package for its presentation. There are numerous extras, including a Bill Moyers program about the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, some home piano recordings of Lubitsch's, and a conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris. Unfortunately it's not the greatest picture transfer, with decent color but lots of flicker and fuzz, presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, no widescreen option.

Comments

Heaven Can Wait (1943) Rating

" Grim "

Rating: NR, 1943

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