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HEAVEN CAN WAIT

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Allyn Joslyn
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Audio: English 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (1982), interviews, MOMA audio seminar, Lubitsch home piano recordings, theatrical trailer, publicity gallery, press book gallery, essay
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: June 14, 2005

"Here was a girl lying to her mother.  Naturally, that girl interested me at once."

Film *** ½

Ernst Lubitsch was one of the most celebrated innovators of film narrative and social satire.  A German-born director with an innate understanding of the inherent humor of everyday existence, Lubitsch was so admired that his every upcoming film, each one branded with that unique "Lubitsch Touch," was eagerly anticipated.  As a huge influence on later sociocomical directors such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, Lubitsch was at his finest with sophisticated comedies and light dramas, both during the silent era and well into the early years of sound film.

Lubitsch's brand of comedy typically revolved around whimsical observations of the upper class milieu, with its amusing sensibilities and urbanity.  Lubitsch specialized in exposing the at-times farcical nature of societal relations, particularly in how people erect superficial artifices and illusory boundaries about themselves to perpetuate the idea of cultured behavior.  Among his best known works today are 1929's The Love Parade and 1934's The Merry Widow, both with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and 1939's Ninotchka with Greta Garbo.

Aside from the visual wit of his films, there was also the sparkling dialogue, on which Lubitsch frequently collaborated.  One of his favorite screenwriters was Samson Raphaelson; they worked on nearly a dozen films together.  The two men understood and perfected the natural rhythm and cadence of comical dialogue and editing, the result being a long string of very successful Hollywood films for Lubitsch.

Heaven Can Wait (1943), based on the play "Birthday" by Lazlo Bus-Fekete, was Lubitsch's biggest commercial success as well as his first Technicolor film.  This witty comedy of manners chronicles the life and times of one early twentieth-century philanderer, from his first childhood appreciations for the gentler sex to his final hours of happiness in the comfort of a pretty home nurse.  Arriving in the hereafter, this former man of leisure, convinced that the accumulated weight of his character flaws disqualifies him from admittance to a more celestial after-life, decides to pursue with unusual determination admittance instead to the more fiery lands below.  The film is, in a sense, a satire of the biopic genre with its self-grandiosity and conceited sense of pretentiousness.  Heaven Can Wait adopts the nuances of the costume drama and biopic, with a flashback structure that illustrates the life and character of the film's main protagonist, Henry Van Cleve, but then sprinkles sly humor and a self-mocking tone throughout the story, best exemplifying that "Lubitsch Touch."

The film starred Don Ameche and a young Gene Tierney.  Long before he was eloping with aliens in Ron Howard's Cocoon, Don Ameche was a leading man for the Fox studio.  In his youth, Ameche was known for his portrayals of historic figures, such as Alexander Graham Bell or Stephen Foster, and he was the very image of the run-of-the-mill, regular American.  Sometimes bland but never pretentious, Ameche was the ideal actor to portray Heaven Can Wait's most ordinary and prosaic Henry Van Cleve.

Gene Tierney, of course, was an actress on the threshold of superstardom.  First spotted by Fox studio mogul Darryl Zanuck on the Broadway stage, Tierney was swiftly signed to a Hollywood contract and began honing her film acting skills in early roles opposite the charismatic likes of Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Dana Andrews.  With her clipped mannerisms, charming exoticism, and appealing beauty, Tierney was an instant success with movie audiences and a paragon of Hollywood glamour.  In fact, following her portrayal of Henry's wife Martha in Heaven Can Wait, Tierney would appear in arguably her most famous film, the film noir classic Laura, as that film's namesake and irresistible femme fatale.

Heaven Can Wait opens with the arrival of Henry van Cleve into a luxurious hotel lobby.  But this is no ordinary lobby - it is the portal to the after-life, with one elevator going up or down, very much down.  Henry, fancying himself a modern-day Casanova, is convinced that a lifetime of skirt-chasing has warranted an eternity of damnation for himself.  Having passed over the Great Divide, Henry at last presents himself where innumerable people had so often told him to go.  While the bemused, goatéed custodian of this Underworld listens on, Henry recounts the dull, humdrum events of his life, enhancing them with colorful flourishes to support his contention that Henry, in life, was indeed an incurable Continental lover.

In truth, Henry is simple and somewhat oblivious, but he is certain of one thing - the female sex is a thing of beauty, worthy of a lifetime of adoration and indulgence.  In his teens, he ascribed great significance to an escapade with the family's French maid, an experience that would shape his concept of relationships.  Henry's life remains a carefree life until he meets Martha, the fiancée of his stuffed-shirt cousin Albert.  Convinced that he has at last met the love of his life, Henry sets upon an immediate courtship of the lovely lady, even in the midst of a lavish engagement party for Albert and Martha.  All's fair in love and war, after all.  Henry's charms and perseverance ultimately win over the lady's heart, and they soon thereafter elope, much to the chagrin of Martha's parents and the incensed Van Cleve clan.

The subsequent marriage, as with all such unions of impulsivity, has its ups and downs.  Henry's sense of guilt threatens to overwhelm him over the years, perhaps due to his own grown son's proclivity towards similar sins of the flesh (like father, like son) or perhaps over the nagging lust in his heart that repeatedly tests his faithfulness to his beloved Martha.  But surprisingly, despite whatever family crises that arise as a result of Henry's wandering eyes, to the very last he remains in love only with Martha.  Henry is, at heart, a kindly main merely waylaid by the basic foibles of his human nature.  In the end, true love is all-conquering, for though Henry's eyes may stray, his heart belongs only to one woman.  And as Henry over time outgrows some of his adolescence, so his son in the end also learns to bear responsibility and maturity.  For this film, the unity of family - a love of filial piety - is stronger than any superficial desire of the flesh.

Heaven Can Wait might today be regarded as an elegant sex comedy.  However, with the restrictive Hays Code in full enforcement at this time, the film is more about innuendos and suggestions than the overt displays seen so frequently in today's films.  If the film feels inhibited or elusive at times to modern audiences, it is all the more classy for it.  As for the ultimate fate of Henry Van Cleve's soul, well, who among us is perfectly angelic?  To err is human, and even in the judgment of the custodians of the after-life, such simple flaws might be overlooked in favor of true love.  Heaven might not have to wait, after all.

Video *** ½

Heaven Can Wait is presented in its original full-frame, color format.  The transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive and encoded on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc.  The video bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps.  As with all Technicolor films, the visuals are bright, with vibrant hues that almost leap from the screen.  There are some minor emulsion fluctuations and a slight softness of the picture quality, but otherwise, there is nary a dust speck in sight and this film looks quite good for its age.

Audio ***

Heaven Can Wait is presented in English monaural.  Dialogue is clear and never muddled without intrusive background noise.  The score is by noted composer Alfred Newman and utilizes a plethora of old-time tunes.

Features *** ½

The Criterion release of Heaven Can Wait contains sufficient quality extras to please the film's admirers.  First up is a new video conversation (25 min.) which wastes no time in jumping right away into the middle of a lively discussion between film critics Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell.  Sarris relates how he first saw Heaven Can Wait and how the public's appreciation for the film has evolved over the years.  Both film critics comment on the fine nuances which comprise the film's famed Lubitsch Touch and which so uniquely define Lubitsch's refined style of sophisticated comedies.  Inserted into the conversation at various points are photographs of Lubitsch, screenwriter Raphaelson, and the film's stars as well as clips from the film.  Coincidentally, compare the clips in this featurette with the same scenes in the film to appreciate what a wonderful job Criterion has done to clean up the image.

Next is Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29 min.).  This 1982 PBS broadcast explores the life and career of screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who created the screenplay for Heaven Can Wait.  Moyers traces Raphaelson's career from its roots on the stage during the Golden Age of American theater, when he worked with the likes of Greer Garson, Jessica Tandy, and Al Jolson.  Among his famous scripts include those for The Jazz Singer, Trouble in Paradise, and Suspicion.  This documentary includes footage of Raphaelson, then in his eighties, instructing aspiring young screenwriters and actors on the art and rhythm of truly memorable dialogue.  The latter half of the broadcast focuses on an interview session between Moyers and Raphaelson as the playwright further discusses his early career and his long-time collaboration with Lubitsch.

Raphaelson talks some more in an audio-only seminar (52 min.) with film critic Richard Corliss.  This interview session was recorded at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 for a screening of Heaven Can Wait.  The seminar opens with an introduction by Corliss about Raphaelson and the process of screenwriting in general.  Following that is a conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson concentrating on Heaven Can Wait, Raphaelson's relationship with Hitchcock on Suspicion, and his impressions of the film version of The Jazz Singer.  The seminar closes with a Q & A session with the audience; unfortunately, the questions are mostly inaudible and must be inferred from Raphaelson's answers (or Corliss' infrequent reiterations of the questions).

Lubitsch himself can be heard on a collage of home piano recordings.  His daughter, Nicola, provides an audio-only introduction (4 min.) to this musical diversion.  She reveals that his piano was a wedding present from star Jeanette MacDonald and relates various anecdotes about her father, his piano, and his childhood stories for her.  The recordings themselves, just over four minutes in length, include Lubitsch's voice in a brief introduction.  The music is accompanied by a constantly in-motion pictorial slideshow of photographs (complete with wipes, fades, and iris shots) from Lubitsch's family, friends, parties, and home.

In the disc's marketing section, there are a handful of promotional features.  First is the film's original theatrical trailer.  There is also a publicity gallery with forty-two rare portraits of the film's cast.  And courtesy of Nicola Lubitsch, twenty-one shots from pages of the original press book are shown.

Lastly, the package insert includes a new essay about Heaven Can Wait by film scholar and university professor William Paul.  The essay is quite an in-depth dissertation on not only the film's themes but also Lubitsch's career and directorial style.  It is quite informative, if a little dry.

Summary:

Heaven Can Wait was one of Ernst Lubitsch's final films, a sophisticated comedy about society values.  Don Ameche offers a fine performance and proves his ability to play a romantic lead opposite one of the most glamorous actresses of the day, Gene Tierney.

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