Screened June 4 2009 on Criterion DVD in New York, NY
This autobiographically intoned life account of America’s most genteel philanderer amounts to a series of paradoxes: a World War II production touting an unheroic, passive cad; the director who practically invented Hollywood urbane sophistication and suavity applying his trade on quaintly mannered, occasionally rustic Americana; and the famous “Lubitsch Touch” applied so gently here as to be almost touchless. The three paradoxes are linked by Lubitsch’s desire to make a film both celebrating and sending up the moral absurdities of his beloved adopted country while having to toe the puritanical line of the Hays Code. It amounts to a celebration of obliqueness, where the offscreen shenanigans of Don Ameche are perpetually alluded to but never shown, leaving the portrait of this Gilded Age Casanova vaguely sketched. We can’t tell to what degree he’s successful at his romantic pursuits, or how much of it is a vain attempt to inflate his ego. Of course Lubitsch is all about reading between the lines, but almost too much here needs to be inferred by verbal references and the reactions of characters to unseen events. In other words, it’s the first Hong Sang-soo movie ever made.
All the same, there’s plenty of fun to be hand in the innuendo of Samson Raphaelson’s screenplay (“Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once”). And they find a priceless visual counterpart in two moments where Lubitsch lets his actors’ eyes do the describing of what they’re seeing, and the spectator watches through them with heightened emotion. There’s also a pleasant musical incorporation of sneezes, coughs and hiccups that convey the inner states of characters where words can’t. Generally Lubitsch moves the proceedings in an ambling, almost plodding style that saps the film of forward momentum; on the other hand seems to anticipate the static, almost non-narrative tableaux of late Carl Dreyer and some Terence Davies. It’s a rhythm that seems to resist moving forward, which fits a film that’s about a man gently coming to terms with his advancing age, the futility of his sexual exploits, and the eternal embrace of family love.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The following citations were counted towards the placement of Heaven Can Wait among The Shoot Pictures Don’t They’s 1000 Greatest Films:
Guillermo Altares, Nickel Odeon (1994)
Lorenzo Codelli, Positif (1991)
? Bertrand Tavernier, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Cahiers du Cinema, Best American Films of the Sound Era (1963)
? Daniel & Susan Cohen, Book – 500 Great Films (1987)
? Danny Peary, Guide for the Film Fanatic: Must-See Films
? Francois Truffaut, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Gavin Lambert, Most Misappreciated American Films (1977)
? Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, 100 Favourite Films (2004)
? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004)
? Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
? Leslie Halliwell, A Further Choice of Entertainment Movies From the Golden Age (1986)
? Luc Moullet, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Marcel Ophuls, Most Important American Films (1977)
? Peter Bogdanovich, 52 Classic Films for One Full Year (1999)
? Taschen, Books Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007)
?? They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
It is an amusing anomaly that Twentieth Century-Fox displays a particular fondness for the nineteenth century and wolves. Never is the studio quite so profligate as when it has a film in which the background is fin-de-siècle and the hero is a lady-killing blade. The settings then ooze a horse-hair flavor and Technicolor rainbows the screen. And the hero has a patent-leather polish that would have dazzled Delmonico’s.
No wonder, then, that the studio has been chortling with so much advance glee over its latest package of entertainment, “Heaven Can Wait,” which came to the Roxy yesterday. For here is a shined and scented chromo which Ernst Lubitsch has produced for it with all the ornamental excess of the period so dear to the heart of the studio. Here is a nostalgic nosegay in which the hero is quite a wolf, indeed. And 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.
For this time Mr. Lubitsch (and his playwright, Sam Raphaelson) is not concerned with the present, as he was so embarrasingly in “To Be or Not To Be,” but is poking very sly and sentimental fun at Eighteen Nineties naughtiness. He—and Mr. Raphaelson, who based the script on a Lazlo Bus-Fekete play—are laughing with gentle affection at the pruderies of yesterday. Their picture has utterly no significance. Indeed, it has very little point, except to afford entertainment. And that it does quite well
– Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, August 12, 1943
Heaven Can Wait was praised by a large cross-section of critics, but the most sensitive notice was from James Agee, who wrote that, while it was not up to Lubitsch’s best (he preferred the silent Lubitsch, “It has a good deal of the dry sparkle, the shrewd business, and the exquisite timing… It brought back a time when people really made good movies… the sets, costumes and props are something for history… [and] the period work, in these respects -as in Lubitsch’s modulations in styles ofposture and movement – was about the prettiest and most quietly witty I had ever seen.” Even D.W. Griffith put aside his old jealousy to pay tribute when he told Ezra Goodman that “I liked the way Lubitsch used color in Heaven Can Wait. And the way he used sound, too.”
As Andrew Sarris has observed of Heaven Can Wait, “the timing of every shot, every gesture, every movement was so impeccably precise and economically expressive that an entire classical tradition unfolded… Contemporary sloppiness of construction brought on by the blind worship of ‘energy’ as an end to itself make it almost too easy to appreciate Lubitsch’s uncanny sense of the stylized limits of a civilized taste. Almost any old movie looks classical today: Lubitsch’s movies are nothing short of sublime.”
– Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
WONDERFUL TRAILER PRODUCED BY FILMBUFF2000 ON YOUTUBE
Ernst Lubitsch’s only completed film in Technicolor (1943), the greatest of his late films, offers a rosy, meditative, and often very funny view of an irrepressible ladies’ man (Don Ameche in his prime) presenting his life in retrospect to the devil (Laird Cregar). Like a good deal of Lubitsch from The Merry Widow on, it’s about death as well as personal style, but rarely has the subject been treated with such affection for the human condition. Samson Raphaelson’s script is very close to perfection, the sumptuous period sets are a delight, and the secondary cast–Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, and Spring Byington–is wonderful. In many respects, this is Lubitsch’s testament, full of grace, wisdom, and romance.
– Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Centered in a Fifth Avenue mansion left over from 19th-century New York, the film is Lubitsch and writing partner Samson Raphaelson’s valentine to “an age that has vanished, when it was possible to live for the charm of living.” Spanning more than half a century, it chronicles the high points of Henry’s life so delicately that–in a variation on the strategies of Lubitsch-Raphaelson’s risque ’30s classics–it leaves some of them entirely offscreen, their emotional impact measured by what the characters feel and say about them afterward. We’ll leave it to you to find out what they are. Suffice it to say that Ameche and Gene Tierney–as Martha, the love of Henry’s life–give performances far subtler than anything else in their Fox contract-player careers, and there are sublime opportunities for those peerless character actors Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, and Marjorie Main.
–Richard T. Jameson, Amazon.com
For once, it seems that Lubitsch – who prided himself on never having vulgar run-ins with the censors and on outsmarting them more consistently than almost anyone else – had outsmarted himself. He set out to make a case for a kind of life that everything in the climate of American piety around him seemed to be discounting. But Heaven Can Wait is the story of a philanderer in which no philandering ever occurs, at least so far as we can tell. If it had, the hero would have been required to be punished in some way (the Production Code) – which was not the kind of movie or moral that Lubitsch had in mind. Since he means to forgive, even to eulogize, this amiably lecherous hero, he has to seem at least to deny the lechery. And so a pattern is set up. From the French maid to the Follies girl, Henry always turns out to be innocent, in spite of initial appearances. The only one he seems to make any real headway with is his wife. And he seems indeed a very contented sort of husband. And yet the implication of adultery – of even a habit of adultery – is clear, if carefully handled. Martha discovers a bill for a diamond bracelet and leaves him. And we discover in the scene that follows that there have been many such quarrels before this. But when? And over what exactly? We know even less about Henry’s infidenlities than he contrives to let his wife know. But since this is a problem the film is importantly about, the effect is of a peculiar smarminess: as if there were things you never discussed, no matter how insistent or obtrusive they became. Lubitsch and Raphaelson undoubtedly felt that their techniques of eloquent reticence would carry the day. But never before had these techniques been required to carry so much – so much necessary meaning and information left out. The film gives less a feeling of double entendre than of massive denial.
– James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood from Lubitsch to Sturges. Published by Da Capo Press, 1998
Amazing what Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche’s great love, still manages to show her character’s gathering strength.
There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren’s host asked, “is that Anton Walbrook?” Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco’s Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn’t want the place getting all touristy. “Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell,” he laments.
Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson’s peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, in looks and demeanor rather reminiscent of Ralph Reed. Excellent exchange, mid-movie:
Albert: The family understands your humor, but it’s a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it’s not for yokels.
We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney’s Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor’s any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren’s favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no “humorous” dialect tics or cutesy gestures.
– Campaspe Smith, The Self-Styled Siren
Films like Heaven Can Wait make us think about our own lives and legacies. The introspective viewer sees the life of Henry Van Cleve and starts to wonder how his own would measure up if such a devilish meeting ever took place. Van Cleve’s ultimate fate in Heaven Can Wait makes us feel better about ourselves and our lives. If you believe in an afterlife as a reward for the life lived on Earth, it’s nice to have movies such as this one to reassure us that no one’s perfect and we’re not expected to be either.
Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous “touch” seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them.
– Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid
Don Ameche is nothing short of wonderful, and it’s a shame that postwar fashion would push him aside in favor of a diet of he-man types and younger blood. That makes his late-career return almost forty years later all the more pleasing. Gene Tierney is appropriately ravishing and handles her comedy well. Her incredible looks got her through a few ordinary pix until a couple of positive hits like this one led to Laura and mainstream stardom. Coburn is a hit as the randy granddad and Spring Byington cute as Henry’s mom. Allyn Joslyn makes a perfect dullsville cousin, the kind who can be cruelly cheated and we don’t care a bit. He has a nice scene where he re-proposes to Martha by describing himself as an old suit of clothes. Martha smiles, but cousin hasn’t a prayer.
– Glenn Erickson, DVD Savant
The film itself is nimble, spry, and as effervescent as an Alka Seltzer thrown into a champagne cocktail. But I don’t want to mislead you into thinking it doesn’t pack some powerful emotional punches. Henry Van Cleve is a man who is railing against time, and trying hard to bury his pain inside the women he comes across in his time. The love affair between him and Martha is compelling, probably because the Gene Tierney character is allowed to see her husband’s faults. She knows exactly what he is, and loves him regardless of it. If the movie were made today it would probably fall apart, because it would show sordid details of an over-sexed man cheating on his beautiful wife. Luckily, because of the extreme censors of the ’40s, the story is made more palatable. We never get the impression that anything sordid is happening—but here’s where Lubitsch is sly and crafty. He insinuates more with a look or a closed door than most modern filmmakers can with an outright fleshy orgy of sweaty close-ups made up of select body parts. It’s a thinking man’s comedy; an exemplary personification of the “Lubitsch touch.” He finds a way for us to root for the callow man, and even root for Martha and him to find happiness any way they can. He’s tricking America into opening its peculiar Midwestern morality and trading it for a more permissive European sensibility. It’s a deep, beautiful film masked in a light, airy comedy, and it’s wonderfully subversive.
– Brett Cullum, DVD Verdict
Ernst Lubitsch’s comic fantasy begins with a cheery conceit, but underneath lingers a fear of loss. Guilt-ridden Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), newly deceased, bypasses heaven for hell, where he finds a skeptical Satan. In lusciously restored Technicolor, Henry recounts his mottled life from the 1870s to the 1940s, as he woos and betrays his wife, Martha (a radiant Gene Tierney), and wins her again. Lubitsch nimbly conveys the passage of time (whiskers change; elderly characters disappear and children arrive), but the chuckling humor is sometimes too genteel for its own good. Although Henry is referred to as a ”Casanova,” the light ”Lubitsch touch” and period censorship never let his lechery register as a serious blot on his character.
– Edward Karam, Entertainment Weekly
Being made in 1943, Heaven Can Wait lacks some of the naughty innuendo of Lubitsch’s pre-Code films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), but it moves far beyond that Art Deco fantasy world to sketch out a gently mocking, yet complex character portrait. In its warmth and humaneness it recalls The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which is to say it’s one of Lubitsch’s richest and most moving films. I would argue that these two films, together with To Be Or Not To Be (1942), represent the true peak of Lubitsch’s career, as much as I love his films from the silent era up to the early Thirties.
– James Steffen, Turner Classic Movies
Putting his lead foot first, director Ernst Lubitsch saddles his story with a script that never properly uses its complete potential. Henry feels that as part of his interview process, he must go through the story of his life, which would have generally been a decent idea, except that he led a pretty uninspiring one.
– Chris Barsanti, FilmCritic.com
This 1943 production from director Ernst Lubitsch’s long partnership with playwright Samson Raphaelson has accrued fame for being one of the pair’s most enduring collaborations, even though the “Lubitsch touch” is more subdued here than in the pair’s Trouble in Paradise and Shop Around the Corner, and barely recognizable from the director’s silent works. From the opening scene, where Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives in Satan’s executive suite in Hell, this is a decidedly restrained picture for the duo. Besides providing film history with one of its most memorable interpretations of Hell, the scene sets the bar for the movie: witty dialogue is exchanged for witty circumstances; the overt Lubitsch opulence, for discrete indicators of social class; biting sexual humor is given over to a decidedly chaste rendering of pleasure; and homespun Americana, instead of Continental sophistication.Even the movie’s structure is more drawn out and nuanced than the partners’ previous pictures. Assuming his wandering eye and lies has warranted eternal suffering, Henry insists to a confused and comically conversational Lucifer he deserves a spot in Hell. He relays his life’s story and all its damning events, which provides a fairly original narrative framework. Of course, in each segment he, instead, displays a good-natured and earnest quality that shows why he belongs in Heaven, providing Lubitsch and Raphaelson with a platform to discuss sexuality and morality in subtle and subversive detail.
– Zachary Jones, Film-Forward
Much has been written over the years about the “Lubitsch Touch.” For a solid example of that touch, look no further than the setup. By beginning his story in Hell, Lubitsch is both endorsing and mocking the idea of Henry’s paying for his sins. Then, for the next hour and a half, Lubitsch sets out to prove that no sin was really committed. In Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson’s eyes, Henry brought no shame to others while also providing a lot of good clean fun to the many women in his life. In examining this point, the writer and director play with the notion held in society at the time that women may have needed to be chaste within the confines of a relationship but that philandering was merely a part of man’s nature. In Heaven Can Wait, such an idea is reduced to what it really is: An excuse for men who’ve never grown up to do whatever they want and with whomever they please. Here, women represent the maturity of fidelity while men, though charming, wouldn’t know maturity if it kicked them out of bed.
– Donald Falzone, Static Multimedia
On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era’s great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema’s immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson.
– Josh Rosenblatt, The Austin Chronicle
On an extra feature on the DVD, critic Andrew Sarris notes that light comedies such as “Heaven Can Wait” tend to be underrated. I have to agree with him, but I also must plead guilty as charged. I admire the extraordinary craft involved in making such a film: it requires a lot of hard work to make comedy seem so easy. Raphaelson´s script is tightly structured, snappy and clever; admirable craft, but also part of the problem for me. As in many modern sitcoms, the characters always seem to know how a scene is going to end before it begins, and mug their way through it as they lead up to that oh-so-meticulously timed punch line. There is little attempt to create plausible characters here: it is never Henry or Martha speaking, but always Don Ameche or Gene Tierney winking at the camera as they deliver perfectly written, perfectly-rehearsed lines. I can´t help but see the whole affair as pleasant but rather slight entertainment; in Douglas Adams´ words, the movie is “mostly harmless.”
– Christopher Long, DVD Town
Few of us get to write our own epitaph. HEAVEN CAN WAIT masquerades lightly as the beyond-the-grave recollections of the aged roué Henry Van Cleve, but the film is in fact Ernst Lubitsch’s own death foretold, his own life summed up.
It was wartime, and Lubitsch despaired over a Europe in flames. His heart was failing, partially the fault of the gigantic cigars he chain-smoked, partially (his friends believed) the result of his long good fight against studio tyranny and hypocrisy. He realized, he told Samson Raphaelson, his friend and collaborator on nine films including HEAVEN CAN WAIT, that he had made many films about Americans, but none about America, a place he loved even more dearly for all its peccadilloes and false prudery. As the two set about to make Lubitsch’s first film in color, Lubitsch suffered a series of heart attacks. Raphaelson was told that Lubitsch could not survive, and so began composing a eulogy. As he dictated, his hardboiled secretary wept. As Raphaelson contemplated the homely German in the ill-fitting clothes whose lacework wit had transformed Hollywood from a provincial town on the edge of a desert into a (at least occasionally) civilized and creative place, the phrases poured like Rhine wine:
“I never saw, even in this territory of egotists, anyone who didn’t light up with pleasure in Lubitsch’s company. We got that pleasure, not from his brilliancy or his rightness. . . but from the purity and childlike delight of his lifelong love affair with ideas. . . He had no time for manners, but the grace within him was unmistakable, and everyone kindled to it, errand boy and mogul, mechanic and artist. Garbo smiled, indeed, in his presence, and so did Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Mann. He was born with the happy gift of revealing himself instantly to all.”
But Lubitsch survived to shoot HEAVEN CAN WAIT, and Raphaelson happily put away his tribute, swearing his secretary to secrecy about his flood of sentiment. For Lubitsch, the film that resulted from this dire period is surely one of his most lovely, an unassuming, casual announcement that death held no fear for him. The amiable, emphatically American Don Ameche as Henry van Cleve stands in for Lubitsch quite nicely, and the ridiculous world over which he presides is a fantasy of provincialism outraged (the preposterous Mr. and Mrs. Strabel, nouveauboors just in from, hopelessly, Kansas), and European sexual matter-of-factness (the worldly Mademoiselle, every adolescent boy’s French maid). In Lubitsch’s version of the afterlife, everyone is as civilized and expansive as he is; even the devil (His Excellency), as played by Laird Cregar, is a patient sophisticate. The screen directions tell us that Henry van Cleve speaks of death “as if talking about a charming social affair,” a typical Lubitsch combination of naiveté and élan.
In the end, heaven could not wait, and the death forestalled during the making of the film arrived to claim Lubitsch in 1947, after his sixth heart attack. Sadly, Raphaelson had reason to bring his eulogy for Lubitsch out of his file cabinet. Only then did he discover that his secretary had broken her vow of secrecy; Lubitsch had read the loving obituary when he had recovered from those first heart attacks, and had been deeply touched. By then he must have known that Raphaelson’s feelings for him had already found a lighter but equally powerful voice in the screenplay for HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
– Anonymous, New York State Writers Institute
To Ameche he was “dedicated”; to Tierney he was “a tyrant.” Tierney was seraphically beautiful but deeply closeted emotionally, and invariably seemed to be acting in a glazed trance. Around the Fox lot, she had a reputation for responding to any emotional scenes by going slightly over the top in a cloying, sentimental way. In trying to spark some emotional immediacy out of her, Lubitsch had terrified the actress. The day after their contretemps, Tierney sought him out and explained that “I’m willing to do my best, but I can’t go on working on this picture if you’re going to keep shouting at me.”
“I’m paid to shout at you,” he retorted.
“Yes, and I’m paid to take it – but not enough.” They laughed and Lubitsch modulated his approach for the rest of the shooting.
– Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch. Published by JHU Press, 2000. Page 319.
EXCERPTS FROM THE ESSAY BY WILLIAM PAUL FOR THE CRITERION DVD
Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) andThat Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades HeavenCan Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.
In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.
While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.
Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipse in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
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.
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.
– Ed Nguyen, DVD Movie Central
Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD’s transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch’s work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox’s publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.
A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch’s entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson’s script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man’s life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.
Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.
Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch’s musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It’s nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.
– Nate Meyers, Digitally Obsessed
ABOUT ERNST LUBITSCH
The following quotes were found on the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Ernst Lubitsch:
“As Hollywood recedes, Lubitsch’s role as a creative entrepreneur and as the germ of European sophistication becomes more fascinating. Considering the way he was rebuffed by Mary Pickford on his first American film, Rosita, and so wittily mocked for his Teutonic stubbornness, it is remarkable that he achieved such eminence in Hollywood and that his reputation rested on the supposed delicacy of “touch”.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“After joining Warner Brothers, he directed five films that firmly established his thematic interests. The films were small in scale, dealt openly with sexual and psychological relationships in and out of marriage, refrained from offering conventional moral judgments, and demystified women. As Molly Haskell and Marjorie Rosen point out, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were aggressive, unsentimental, and able to express their sexual desires without suffering the usual pains of banishment or death.” – Greg S. Faller (The St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia, 1998)
“Lubitsch was always the least Germanic of German directors, as Lang was the most Germanic. The critics were always so obsessed with what Lubitsch naughtily left off the screen that they never fully evaluated what was left on… Lubitsch was the last of the genuine continentals let loose on the American continent, and we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died – even before he did – everywhere except in his own memory.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“The man with the cynical, delightful touch created an aristocratic world of yesteryear, then poked fun at it. Lubitsch could say volumes by implication and innuendo.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard.” – Ernst Lubitsch
“I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?” – Ernst Lubitsch
The most widely imitated comic filmmaker of the sound era, Ernst Lubitsch perfected an urbane, graceful directorial style so original and so distinctive that the phrase “Lubitsch Touch” was coined simply to describe it. Combining elegance and wit to bring a tremendous warmth and humanity to even the thinnest of screenplays, he set a new standard of achievement for the light romantic comedy, largely defining the genre while also helping to revolutionize the movie musical as well as various recording techniques.
– Jason Ankeny, All Movie Guide
In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.
– Dennis Harvey, SF360
In 1932 Lubitsch directed his first non-musical sound comedy, Trouble in Paradise. Most critics consider this film to be, if not his best, then at least the complete embodiment of everything that has been associated with Lubitsch: sparkling dialogue, interesting plots, witty and sophisticated characters, and an air of urbanity—all part of the well-known “Lubitsch Touch.” What constitutes the “Lubitsch Touch” is open to continual debate, the majority of the definitions being couched in poetic terms of idolization. Andrew Sarris comments that the “Lubitsch Touch” is a counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film’s gayest moments. Leland A. Poague sees Lubitsch’s style as being gracefully charming and fluid, with an “ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed. . . .” Observations like this last one earned Lubitsch the unfortunate moniker of “director of doors,” since a number of his jokes relied on what unseen activity was being implied behind a closed door.
Regardless of which romantic description one chooses, the “Lubitsch Touch” can be most concretely seen as deriving from a standard narrative device of the silent film: interrupting the dramatic interchange by focusing on objects or small details that make a witty comment on or surprising revelation about the main action. Whatever the explanation, Lubitsch’s style was exceptionally popular with critics and audiences alike. Ten years after arriving in the United States he had directed eighteen features, parts of two anthologies, and was recognized as one of Hollywood’s top directors.
—Greg S. Faller, Film Reference.com
“The Lubitsch Touch” – it was as famous a monicker as Hitchcock’s “Master of Suspense” – but perhaps not as superficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch films – more than in almost any other director’s work – one can feel this spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also – and particularly – in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role. Jack Benny told me that Lubitsch would act out in detail exactly how he wanted something done – often broadly but always succinctly – knowing, the comedian said, that he would translate the direction into his own manner and make it work. Clearly, this must have been Lubitsch’s method with all his actors because everyone in a Lubitsch movie – whether it’s Benny or Gary Cooper, Lombard or Kay Francis, Maurice Chevalier or Don Ameche, Jeanette MacDonald or Claudette Colbert – performs in the same unmistakable style. Despite their individual personalities – and Lubitsch never stifled these – they are imbued with the director’s private view of the world, which made them behave very differently than they did in other films.
This was, in its own way, inimitable – though Lubitsch has had many imitators through the years – yet none has succeeded in capturing the soul of that attitude, which is as difficult to describe as only the best styles are, because they come from some fine inner workings of the heart and mind and not from something as apparent as, for instance, a tendency to dwell on inanimate objects as counterpoint to his characters’ machinations. Certainly Lubitsch was famous for holding on a closed door while some silent or barely overheard crisis played out within, or for observing his people in dumb show through closed windows. This was surely as much a part of his style as it was an indication of his sense of delicacy and good taste, the boundless affection and respect he had for the often flighty and frivolous men and women who played out their charades for us in his glorious comedies and musicals.
Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, “Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood,” for his influence was felt, and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors. Hitchcock has admitted as much to me and a look at Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (both plots deal with jewel thieves so the comparisons are easy) will reveal how well he learned, though each is distinctly the work of the man who signed it. Billy Wilder, who was a writer on a couple of Lubitsch films – including the marvelous Ninotchka – has madeseveral respectful forays into the world of Lubitsch, as have many others with less noteworthy results. Even two such distinctive film makers as Frank Borzage and Otto Preminger, directing pictures which Lubitsch only produced – Desire (Borzage), A Royal Scandal and That Lady in Ermine (Preminger) – found themselves almost entirely in the service of his unique attitudes, and these movies are certainly far more memorable for those qualities than for ones usually associated with their credited directors. (Actually, Lubitsch is credited for That Lady in Ermine, but this was a sentimental gesture since he suffered a fatal heart attack and only shot eight days of it before Preminger took over.)
Lubitsch brought a maturity to the handling of sex in pictures that was not dimmed by the dimness of the censors that took over in the early Thirties, because his method was so circuitous and light that he could get away with almost anything. And that was true in everything he did. No other director, for example, has managed to let a character talk directly to the audience (as Chevalier did in The Love Parade and One Hour with You) and pull it off. There is always something coy and studied in it, but Lubitsch managed just the right balance between reality and theatricality – making the most outrageous device seem natural and easy; his movies flowed effortlessly and though his hand was felt, even seen, it was never intrusive.
After Lubitsch’s funeral in 1947, his friends Billy Wilder and William Wyler were walking sadly to their car. Finally, to break the silence, Wilder said, “No more Lubitsch,” and Wyler answered, “Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films.” The following year, the French director?critic, Jean-Georges Auriol, wrote a loving tribute that made the same point; titled “Chez Ernst,” it can be found in Herman Weinberg’s affectionate collection, The Lubitsch Touch (Dutton). After comparing the director’s world to an especially fine restaurant where the food was perfect and the service meticulous, the piece ends this way: “How can a child who cries at the end of the summer holidays be comforted? He can be told that another summer will come, which will be equally wonderful. But he cries even more at this, not knowing how to explain that he won’t be the same child again. Certainly Lubitsch’s public is as sentimental as this child; and it knows quite well that ‘Ernst’s’ is closed on account of death. This particular restaurant will never be open again.”
Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitsch’s films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next. The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm. By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them. Compare, say, the scene in LaCava’s Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis. In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises–was LaCava “quoting” the Lubitsch film?–the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style. But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkins’ moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.
This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitsch’s sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt’s theater company, the acting in his films evokes “lower” forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor. The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitsch’s films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch’s actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction. In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier’s characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama. One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters–like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)–who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.
Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch’s career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement. Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.
- Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York. I don’t want to say anything against Kansas, but–life on my father’s estate…Don’t misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but…oh, and you don’t know Father and Mother.
- Ameche: Well, I’ve only just met them.
- Tierney: Don’t you think they’re sweet?
- Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
- Tierney: Yes, they are. But it’s not very easy to live with them. You see, most of the time they don’t talk to one another. And whenever a young man–and there were some very nice ones…
- Ameche: Oh, I’m sure of it.
- Tierney: …if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no. And when my father said yes, my mother said no. But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms. And if I hadn’t said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again. I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas. Don’t misunderstand me–I love Kansas. It’s just that I don’t feel like living there. Besides, I don’t want to be an old maid. Not in Kansas!
As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney’s hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them. Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition. Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney’s character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery. If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I’ve suggested–the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch’s actor-aware/character-unaware strategy–it’s interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch’s approach is obviously comic. Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character’s psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs. This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can’t be funny–there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors–but it does suggest that Lubitsch’s comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.Perhaps Lubitsch’s only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction. His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.
Samson Raphaelson’s great talent was in making true love seem so much more than a boy-meets-girl plot device, while at the same time cherishing the delicate patterns and structures of that device. Music and camerawork celebrate the artifice in One Hour with You and are elaborate in design; the revelation of an affair is given in soliloquy.
They worked most often with a Hungarian play as a springboard and finished with something entirely different, save for the bare bones of the original plot. Raphaelson himself tended to dismiss “writing in the Lubitsch vein,” as his theatrical and literary concerns were most important to him, but the two of them (and let us not exclude Ernest Vajda) inspired one another “past all sanity.”
—Rob Pinsel, FILM REFERENCE.com
ABOUT GENE TIERNEY
The Mave’s Tribute to Gene Tierney
Exotically beautiful debutante whose Broadway and then film career was fueled and promoted through a company owned by her insurance-broker father. (He sued his daughter for breach of the family corporation in the early 1940s.) Tierney’s best roles include the hauntingly beautiful faux-murder victim in the noir classic “Laura” (1944); the neurotically possessive bride in John M. Stahl’s 1945 melodrama “Leave Her to Heaven” (for which she received her only Oscar nomination); Vincent Price’s young bride in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s period thriller “Dragonwyck” (1946), and the serene widow in Mankiewicz’s lovely romantic fantasy “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947).
Divorced from designer Oleg Cassini in 1952, Tierney fell in love with Aly Khan but suffered a nervous breakdown when he left her during the filming of “The Left Hand of God” (1955). She was promptly suspended by Fox and did not return to acting until “Advise and Consent” in 1962. In 1960 Tierney had married Texas oilman W. Howard Lee, former husband of Hedy Lamarr. She penned a candid autobiography, “Self Portrait”, in 1979.