The final frame of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait has a small note in the bottom right: “For US War Bonds and Stamps. Buy Them in This Theater.” A 1943 film. Makes sense. What’s strange is that the war is entirely absent from Lubitsch’s film – a comedy with that so-talked-about Lubitsch touch well foregrounded.
Henry Van Cleve is Don Ameche who begins the film in hell. When faced with the devil (Laird Cregar) Ameche tells his life story. What’s odd about the prologue is that Ameche isn’t pleading for his soul, or to get to heaven. In fact, he’s given up and his story, at least at first, functions as confession.
The rest of the film, up until the ending epilogue when we return to hell, takes place in flashback form and follows Ameche and his interactions with the various women in his life – from a nurse at birth, up to a nurse at death: fully circular. Opposite Van Cleve is Gene Tierney as Martha, Ameche’s great love.
So what makes up the Lubitsch touch? It’s much debated, but what usually arises from any contradicting viewpoints is that it’s a combination of sophisticated blocking, witty, urbane humor, and a deft sense of tragedy/drama. There’s usually some sly commentary hidden within (hidden in 1943 because of the Production Code), and sexual politics are certainly a major theme.
Lubitsch has made some great films and I consider two of his most famous – Ninotchka (Garbo Laughs!) and Trouble in Paradise – masterpieces. Heaven Can Wait falls a bit short for me. Here’s why:
First, and oddly enough, is the blocking and the editing. It feels stilted. There were more than a few moments when Lubitsch would cut in from his wide-shots to a 2-shot and the angle would feel ill-placed and the pacing would stutter momentarily, as though there were a slight gap in the action. The blocking of characters, while at times (particularly in the early scenes between Ameche and Martha) feeling fresh, often fails. Maybe it’s partially Van Cleve’s natural woodenness, but I felt like characters were hitting marks rather than walking for emphasis on whatever the beat of the moment was.
There’s a great discussion in the extra features of the Criterion DVD with famed critic Andrew Sarris. Sarris has a few interesting things to say. One is that the film gets better the older he gets. It’s certainly sentimental, though I felt its comedy and sentimentality to be dated. Maybe I have to wait a few decades…
Sarris makes two very interesting points though: one is that Ameche, for all of his supposed philandering in the film, never actually follows through with his adultery. The “suave” lead is in fact always bested by his female objects of desire, which is very much counter to the popular male-centric narratives of the time – not that Hollywood really tackled adultery, but the institutional wisdom was that man gets what man wants.
Secondly from Sarris: good-looking people are equated with good people. He claims this throughout Hollywood’s history. It’s simple, and unfortunately, rather true. Beauty in and out. Ugly in and out. The latter is less true than the former (heart of gold types), but, as far as I can tell, it’s not really until we get into our Kazan years that this archetype is run against. But even now, it’s frequently the case.
Speaking Kazan: in some way this Lubitsch film precedes something like Kazan’s Baby Doll in its frank depiction of sexuality. Of course Kazan’s is famous for its role in the destruction of the Code and the inception of the MPAA, and Lubitsch’s films/characters are much more hidden and repressed (in part because of necessity and in part because of the general urbanity of the characters that inhabit his worlds), but nonetheless, there is a line connecting the two in their innuendo-driven inter-play and their camera gaze that oscillates between male and female and, though landing male, still often features female characters who have spine and sexual priorities.
There are some really nice touches to Heaven Can Wait. We watch Ameche age in a montage of birthday presents: all are neck-ties. Lubitsch’s representation of Ameche at 70: a full medicine cabinet.
SPOILER HERE: Martha dies in the final 10 minutes of the film. It’s one of the oddest treatments of a major protagonist’s (and Hollywood star’s) deaths in a film I’ve seen. We don’t see it. There’s no death scene, no funeral, not even any mourning. Ameche tells us that it happens in VO and then we just skip forward in time. Is this an attempt to counter the darkness that these scenes would inevitably bring forth and, in effect, counter the mostly either gloomy or jingoist wartime films? Quite possibly. Either way, it certainly jolts the narrative.
As Martha’s death is unseen, Ameche’s is also off-screen. It’s also worth noting that his death is comedic. A very attractive nurse walks into his room. The door closes behind him. The camera cranes away. We hear his cry- and we dissolve out. So: two deaths. Both unseen, one comic. It’s unusual and pulls the film out of what could be melodramatic genre trappings.