Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)
A short break from the bleak, muscular brooding from the randomly chosen, yet profoundly quality, black and white films of the ongoing films noir series at the Cinémathèque led me back there anyway, only this time for the far more whimsical, full color (Technicolor, to be precise, with the slightly scratchy print still retaining a visual smorgasbord of deep hues and textures from the sets and costumes as part of life amongst the turn-of-the-century shamelessly indulgent New York rich) urbane delights of Heaven Can Wait, another comedy of manners from that brilliant sophisticate filmmaker Lubitsch.
Okay, so the story of the life of spoiled, skirt-chasing (just getting into the lingo of the time) man-child Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), having passed from this mortal coil at an old age and recounting his enviously indulgent life story to Hell’s gatekeeper (Laird Cregar), might be a tad (okay, maybe a bit more than a tad) sexist in its open amusement at (and celebration of) his plentiful easy prowess at scoring with the female folk all his life (why, he even gets it on with his very first French teacher when he’s 13! — though it’s only implied – revealing one of the benefits of old Hollywood films – that is, how the very nature of only being able to hint at naughty things rather than fully admit to them often allowed for even greater perversity), but it’s still wonderfully pleasurable fun, as Henry’s mostly a relatively innocent scoundrel (reinforced by how deserving he feels of being doomed to Hell) with a lively spirit and even a wife who he deeply loves (having openly stolen her from under the wings of his dullard cousin Albert, performed in an obnoxious style by Allyn Joslyn that’s just another cog in a satisfying ensemble of lightly comic character acting) and who has always seen through and tolerated his shenanigans (including what are not shown but understood to be his many affairs).
Heaven is an amusingly written and beautifully designed, if fairly inconsequential, treat. Gene Tierney as Henry’s one true love Martha (from a rich family in Kansas City) is mostly just gorgeous. The regal way she quietly faces her eventual off-screen death from cancer, without making it a burden on the self-involved Henry or their equally indulgent son, isn’t really meant to elicit all that much profound emotion (it’s not a movie going for that), but it does reinforce the one theme that has a certain lingering resonance – that is, on the loss that comes with the passage of time; with almost each period we visit in Henry’s life, there is often always another character no longer there, with little mention other than that stark understanding of what that absence means.
Familiar character actor Charles Coburn (for those who watch these films, anyway) as Henry’s grandfather, a self-made millionaire (and one eventually no longer there between stories) is great as the family member who can see through Henry’s conniving ways at every turn (Henry’s stuffy and clueless parents certainly can’t!) and yet still loves the kid anyway. I was already a big fan of the physically imposing actor Laird Cregar from his tortured performances in two 1940’s films noir by director John Brahm (playing a Jack the Ripper-like killer in 1944’s The Lodger, also filmed by Alfred Hitchcock almost 20 years earlier, and as a murderous classical pianist in 1945’s Hangover Square, Cregar’s last performance before his tragic death of a massive heart attack), but seeing him in this film, bringing such suave and whimsical gusto to his gatekeeper of Hell role, reveals a range I had no idea he had. What a great character actor he could have been if he hadn’t died at only 31 years of age. The actors playing Martha’s stodgy, endlessly quibbling rich parents from Kansas City (the frog-voiced, massively stomached Eugene Pallette and the stern-faced Marjorie Main) who look down their noses at all that uppity behavior in New York (as they sit around their room-sized breakfast tables served by black help) are made for this type of comically observed (with the trenchant aspect taking a backseat) comedy.
While it’s true Henry Van Cleve’s brand of adulterous lechery wouldn’t stand a cinematic chance today (he certainly wouldn’t be rewarded heaven!), what can I say? Lubitsch’s clever craftsmanship, the sophisticated banter, the beautiful cinematography and rich Technicolor design of the film make for a wonderfully engaging and entertaining night at the movies.