Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

20th Century- Fox
Director: Ernst Lubitsch

As a well-respected, long-time director in Hollywood it is surprising that Heaven Can Wait would be Ernst Lubitsch’s first picture in color. This beautifully orchestrated comedy about a lengthy, troubled romance has all that cinematic historians would deem the “Lubitsch touch.” It may have been his first use of a Technicolor camera, but there is no mistaking that this motion picture contains the innocently naughty undertones that this skilled filmmaker seemed to get past stingy censors as he assembled a beautiful tale that makes one both laugh and possibly tear up.

Heaven Can Wait is a comedy of a man that recounts all the women of his life, focusing on an up and down marriage with his wife. Opening within the luxurious gates of hell Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) recounts to the regally dapper “Excellency” (the devil played by Laird Cregar) the tales of the many women of his life that perhaps led to his entry into the lower levels of the afterlife. Henry commences by going all the way back to birth, from his mother (Spring Byington) and grandmother, to his adolescent days where he shared a youthful affair with his French housemaid.

With a wealthy, spoiled upbringing and with a wondering eye for the likes of showgirls Henry is struck by the beauty of Martha (Gene Tierney), and does everything in his power to be with her. Following their controversial eloping the two share a marriage of great happiness and troubles as Henry continues to flirt with other woman, much to Martha’s concerns. Ultimately learning where Henry’s heart really lays Martha comes to adore Henry for who he is in their long, happy marriage, before her untimely death. Widowed, Henry resumes his flirtatious social life, but is reminded that no young beauty will replace the special love he had with Martha, even as he passes away in the sight of a sultry nurse. Upon conclusion of his life “His Excellency” suggests Henry’s entrance further up, implying heaven, or perhaps its annex, where Martha and his loved ones will be waiting with smiles for him.

This picture is filled with charm from beginning to end. Beautifully shot in elegant Technicolor, this comedy creates both moments of humor, great frustration, relief, as well as moments of deep love. Although the story is of a spoiled man who loves to get around with many women, upon deeper observation it is a much sweeter story of a man seeking affection, a downfall of giving a great deal only for attention, and the lovely lady that grows to understand who this man truly is at heart. Ernst Lubitsch is amazingly able to make this womanizing chap that you feel you should hate and turn him into a lovable childlike man whose heart remains truly with his dear wife.

Based on the plays entitled “Birthday” this tale actually centers on the several birthdays of Henry from a young boy through adulthood until his death. It is on his 26th birthday when he first meets and eventually runs away with Martha. It is on the various subsequent birthdays/anniversaries in which the two have their various fights and making up that pepper their later marriage. Director Ernst Lubitsch has the innate ability to take a story of such adult humor and subject manner and present it in an innocent way, especially to please Production Code censors of the day.

Star Don Ameche was not the first choice for Lubitsch to portray Henry. Executives at Fox had made the decision to cast Ameche purely for commercial reasons, as Ameche’s name added a marketability for the film. As production carried on the frustrated Lubitsch would gain much respect for the actor, as did the actor for the filmmaker, despite Lubitsch’s dictatorial manner on set. Later in life Ameche would praise Heaven Can Wait as his favorite feature in his acting career.

The picture’s top billing went to 22 year-old Gene Tierney who found Lubitsch’s tyrannical directing style on set mentally troubling as he came to shouted orders to her on many occasions. It was not until after she had a talk with Lubitsch after one tearful night when she had been overwhelmed by his yelling that the two began to get along on set with great respect. With her performance here Tierney;s career would continue to rise as she was becoming one of the more popular beautiful starlets of her time.

If there was to be named a third musketeer to this film’s cast it would the memorable performance of Charles Coburn who plays Henry’s grandfather, the lonw family member who sympathizes with the youthful Henry. The Georgia native’s performance produces perhaps the most lovable character of the movie. In the world in which Henry is brought up in of wealthy families with inherited money Colburn’s Grandfather role identifies with Henry as he was a self-made man with minimal sophistication, schooling, or manners. His lesser sophications allow for the old man to live out his later years vicariously through this grandson’s adventures in. Coburn brings a great life to the part and leaves an indelible mark on the film many times as the comic relief.

As a first venture into the realm of color picture for Lubitsch this feature is rich with colors and the understanding of how to use this bright medium. Take for example the set that represents an elegant office for the devil in hell and its creative brilliance. Here the picture strays way form the predicable reds and goes for a stylish art deco inspired blue desk that is subdued, but not something somehow unworldly in it perfection. With most scenes takes place in the days gone by of late 1890s and the beginning of the twentieth century, of course the camera benefits for the vibrant period style costumes that splash throughout the film.

It is amazing to think that it took Lubitsch this long to get to make a color feature; and during the period’s slenderer budgets due to the war. Sadly Lubitsch’s health would begin to fade and with that his work would too. He would direct only two more pictures before his death in 1947.

Heaven Can Wait was a wonderful success and proved to have everything audiences had loved in the director’s style. Apart from the Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography for a color feature, the film brought in generous box office numbers. The picture remains one of the finer works in the director’s body of work and perhaps the last true “Lubitsch film.”

So here we can respectfully see an end of an era as Ernst Lubitsch produces his final feature that was indelibly his. As a filmmaker he left a last mark on the business and the movie screen, bringing many joys long remembered.

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