“With your ingenuity it will be easy to make up a story.” So Martha Strable Van Cleve (Gene Tierney) writes in a telegram when quarrelling with her husband, Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). As maestro of the famed Lubitsch Touch, this could just as easily apply to the director himself. Ernst Lubitsch’s first colour picture, Heaven Can Wait was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards, losing to the formidable Casablanca and Michael Curtiz. Edward Cronjager lost out on the Best Cinematography award to the Arthur Lubin and the Technicolor Phantom of the Opera. Yet despite this, Heaven Can Wait is a resounding success, a period film that feels eternally modern, and one of Lubitsch’s warmest and most enchanting features.
With a needlepoint opening title sequence signifying a faux-quaint past, from its very beginning the film progresses swiftly through changing traditions, expectations, and behaviours. Credits are listed on a pseudo hessian background and spotted with bluebirds, that unmistakably American muse of happiness. It’s Lubitsch’s way of setting out parameters of his world; elements of bitterness and unpleasantness have no place here, and even the Gates of Hell are charming and palatial. The most horrifying thought in the film is the prospect of descending into an eternal afterlife without the music of Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart. Following these bluebirds, jokes come one after the other with such regularity that it can be hard to catch them all at once. They are not all verbal or compositional, either, but often contained within the film’s details: like the grimace of His Excellency when he thinks of a piercing coloratura, and his brief look of eager glee as Henry Van Cleve mentions the women in his life.
Henry, as he admits honestly at the Gates of Hell, has lived his life as “one continuous misdemeanour” – presumably involving those women. He narrates his story to His Excellency (Laird Cregar), from his birth through a series of flashbacks that glimpse into his long seventy-year life, so that the continuous misdemeanour of “the great cavalier of the Gay Nineties” is punctuated by a series of significant ellipses. While there’s no doubt Henry thinks himself a sinner, he excuses his behaviour with the most enchanting excuses, and with these ellipses his life becomes simply a string of pleasant occurrences with the occasional allusion to something otherwise.
Amidst light humour and existential philosophy, Heaven Can Wait is a commentary on marriage, an appreciation for love and dedication, and belongs firmly in Lubitsch’s canon alongside One Hour With You (1932). Both films contain men who are hopeless romantics, and undeniable cads. Indeed, where Maurice Chevalier had a glint in his eye, Ameche has a curl in his lips, and both have irresistible rounded cheeks. This seems effortlessly Ameche’s finest performance, brought out by Lubitsch’s delicate directorial touch, and there is not a single misfire from the cast. (Although it’s a shame Charles Coburn and Eugene Pallette didn’t do more together).
Tierney, already a star but here in her first top-billed performance (above Ameche), is remarkable, an equal balance of timidity and strength, a match for Henry’s opportunistic ways. While Lubitsch presents a societally gendered view of marriage and infidelity, he continually undercuts it, refraining from heavy-handedness and remaining contemplative. Neither gender is spared as the target of jokes. It is Lubitsch’s men who are melodramatic here, and the women are the sensible ones.
The costume and production design seems just as effortlessly marvellous, and with expressions of character and theme as colour, it excels. As Henry and Martha meet, Technicolor purples, pinks, blues – not quite pastel but very floral – suggest the blooming of romance. This seems so natural that it takes a while to notice that everyone is wearing almost the same colour, and their clothing matches the interiors, as though all decorating the same rose bush (there is a rose in almost every scene). This palette is contrasted with the darker blue, taupe, maroon, and green, of both 1887 Manhattan and of Kansas. If this is a stab at the provincial crops harvested in Kansas – they are stuck at least a decade behind – it is kind-spirited, and ultimately all for the love of New York City.
The bright urban tones visually infuse the fin-de-siècle New York lifestyle with a sense of whimsy, which the dark and stormy Kansas is seemingly bereft of. And yet ultimately, Kansas hosts one of the film’s most thrilling and honest moments: years pass, and by the time Henry dies, his bedroom is a bare slate of beige and fawn, with no roses in sight. The anteroom at the Gates of Hell, a grandiose hall swathed in warm shades of red, becomes a visual treat. In Lubitsch’s world, Hell is better looking than Earth.
While not strictly a comedy of manners, in Heaven Can Wait gestures like a hiccup, a sneeze, a snore, are suggestive of impropriety. Like any Lubitsch film, only the most respectable actions are undertaken with the best manners – and the most inexcusable actions excused with the utmost courtesy. As Andrew Sarris said of the lightness in To Be or Not To Be (1942), “for Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners, and then no evil was inconceivable.” 1 Additionally, it seems as if the worst crime a character can commit is having no sense of humour.
In Heaven Can Wait, even the ruder characters have exquisite social decorum, and everyone seems irrepressibly chirpy, even when they are upset. Even Martha’s adorably spiteful and very unhappily married parents seem to enjoy being miserable. Everyone lies to each other, but a person who lies is to be admired before they are dismissed, especially if they do so with skill. “When selling literature, one gets poetic,” Henry says when first courting Martha, to excuse his telling a lie in a way that he no doubt thinks is entirely acceptable. Henry is poetic, a dreamer, and Heaven Can Wait is poetry, too.
Heaven Can Wait (1943 USA 112 mins)
Prod. Co: Twentieth Century Fox Prod: Ernst Lubitsch Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Samson Raphaelson Phot: Edward Cronjager, Natalie Calmus Mus: Alfred Newman Art Dir: James Basevi, Leland Fuller
Cast: Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Majorie Main, Laird Cregar, Allyn Joslyn
- A. O. Scott, “What Would Ernst Lubitsch Have Done?,” The New York Times, 15 June 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/15/movies/film-what-would-ernst-lubitsch-have-done.html ↩