Heaven Can Wait, 1943, 20th Century Fox. Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Technicolor, 114 minutes.
An elderly Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) has met his demise, and believing he is not fit for heaven, he heads straight to the gates of Hell. There he is met by the gatekeeper, who questions Henry’s stand. The man’s life unfolds, and ultimately, a decision is made.
Henry is one of the idle rich, and he lives a provocative and sometimes laughable, yet perhaps not blatantly bad, life. Early in the picture we see a very young Henry ineptly trying to woo a girl he has his heart set on. Henry is not discouraged because this young lady got the best of him, however. He grows up with a fine appreciation for the women in his life, much to the chagrin (and at times amusement) of his grandfather, Hugo Van Cleve (Charles Coburn).
Later, stealing his cousin’s fiance, Martha (Gene Tierney), and eloping with her scandalizes the family. Over time their feelings are assuaged as it is revealed that this impulsive choice was the right one.
Still, Henry is not the perfect husband. He cheats on Martha with impunity and ultimately she leaves him. He works diligently to win her back and the two reunite, but there is a crack in their relationship.
And so it goes. Henry leads a moderately bad, moderately good life, making his qualifications for Hell questionable.
Heaven Can Wait is humor of a different sort for Ernst Lubitsch. It doesn’t hold the biting sexuality of Trouble in Paradise or Design for Living, and its lead character is an ordinary, unremarkable man. But like many of Lubitsch’s earlier works, the humor is subtle and not in the story, or situations, themselves. It is in the dialogue and interplay between the characters.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Cinematography. It won none, but was well received by critics, with the New York Times critic saying, in part, “here is a comedy of manners, edged with satire, in the slickest Lubitsch style. The Twentieth Century-Fox has got a picture about fin-de-siècle conduct which rings a bell.”
Henry is neither a hero nor a criminal; he has had a few episodes as a scoundrel, but his life is less than sensational. And so is this film. It may be one critics can appreciate more than a general audience, for Lubitsch was an immensely talented man.