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Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait(1943)

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Synopsis: Genteel womanizer Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) finds himself in the afterlife having to account for his previous existence. At the reception room for Hades he explains to Satan that his sins make him unqualified for Heaven, and he proceeds to recount both his long marriage to the forgiving Martha (Gene Tierny) and his lifetime of romantic adventures.

Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (1943) is one of the more unusual marriage comedies of the studio era, depicting a couple's relationship across the decades. Indeed, the passing of time and the effect it has on the film's characters is one of the main underlying themes, and it connects nicely with Lubitsch's nostalgic vision of the past. The photography and turn-of-the-century production design, though lavish, never overwhelm the film's comedy but add a wholly appropriate burnish. Don Ameche perfectly embodies the sly charms of Henry Van Cleve in what must surely be his greatest role.

Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch's pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it's one of Lubitsch's richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch's career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.

Thankfully, however, Heaven Can Wait is not entirely devoid of innuendo--perhaps the biggest laughs come from the section detailing the young Henry's dalliance with the family's French maid, Yvette Blanchard (Signe Hasso). At one point she says to Henry, "Your soul is bigger than your pants." The film's comedy extends to the musical quotations on the soundtrack, among them "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "The Merry Widow Waltz" and "Home on the Range." The later represents the corn-fed, irascible Strables, and its use is surely ironic given that one of the song's lines is "...and the skies are not cloudy all day"--the Strables' ranch is under a constant deluge of rain. Another highlight is a spirited performance by Charles Coburn as the grandfather Hugo Van Cleve. Coburn has become one of my favorite character actors of the studio era; in films such as this, The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and The More the Merrier (1943), Coburn was far more than just one of so many Hollywood eccentrics, always waiting off camera to trot out his carefully cultivated crazy routine. In his best films Coburn brought a sense of humaneness and wisdom to his performances, thus adding not just to the film's comedy, but also to its emotional resonance. A tip of the hat to Mr. Coburn.

The Criterion DVD has a resplendent color transfer that shows off the film's production design to the best advantage. It's as clean and bright as possible with extremely little color fringing, an artifact common on Technicolor prints due to misalignment of the color layers. In a couple places the elements are apparently dupes and thus not as sharp, but any such caveats run the risk of making the transfer sound less stellar than it actually is. Extras include: a conversation with critics Molly Haksell and Andrew Sarris; a Bill Moyers interview with screenwriter Samson Raphaelson; an audio-only seminar with Raphaelson conducted by Richard Corliss in 1977, recordings of Lubitsch at the piano, and the theatrical trailer. For Eric Benchley fans, the trailer includes clever voiceover commentary by him.

Heaven Can Wait is a very special film; frankly, I can't imagine any one not liking it. Criterion's DVD edition is a must-have.

For more information about Heaven Can Wait, visit The Criterion Collection. To order Heaven Can Wait, go to TCM Shopping.

by James Steffen