Untouched by Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait” (1943)
18 September 2010
The distributor Criterion (which has released a newly restored, high-definition digital DVD) promised me that this film “is an enduring classic that showcases [Ernst Lubitsch’s] trademark blend of wit, urbanity, and grace.” I am prone to believe such promises, as I would sit down this very moment and watch “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), “Ninotchka” (1939), or “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and other Lubitsch films despite having already seen them many times. But “Heaven Can Wait” somehow manages to take a great cast (Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette) and a great story and make it boring and surprisingly misogynistic for the otherwise women-friendly Lubitsch. Why did his famous touch disappear during the making of this film?
It was actually studio PR people who invented the phrase “the Lubitsch touch” to convert him into a brand name, but critics ever since have sought to define it satisfactorily. I’m inclined to agree with Andrew Sarris, who explains that “a poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch” (American Cinema). Certainly those elements are present in “Heaven Can Wait,” which begins with an aged Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) presenting himself to a dapper Devil at the entrance to hell (who knew it would be an über-stylish 1940s office?). Unconvinced that Henry truly belongs in hell, the Devil demands that he tell the story of his life to prove wrongdoing. So Henry begins: “Perhaps the best way to tell you the story of my life is to tell you about the women in my life.” Ameche conveys precisely that light mix of humor and poignancy that makes me love Lubitsch films — and I was prepared to be hooked.
But I think it’s precisely that premise that burdens the film, for it must somehow convince us to like and sympathize with Henry while also observing him behaving very badly with women — most dangerously with the screen sweetheart, Gene Tierney. Not to mention the fact that the film meanders tediously through a lot of back story. Through an overly long series of vignettes, we learn that Henry has been pampered by women from his earliest years, and by his 20s has become a rake. It seems to take ages before Ameche appears as the twenty-something Henry and even longer for Tierney to arrive onscreen as Martha, the heiress of a midwestern slaughterhouse fortune. Henry falls for her after overhearing her lying to her mother on the phone and sneaking off to buy a copy of How to Please Your Husband. Problem is, she’s due to be married to Henry’s goody-goody cousin, Albert. None of us is surprised when Henry sweeps her off her feet (literally) and they elope, because Ameche is great — not just handsome in that lovely broad-faced Wisconsin way, but possessed of a modest gravitas that contributes mightily to the light melancholy of the Lubitsch touch.
But it’s at this point that Henry’s motives become muddy and the film takes on a distractingly misogynistic tinge. We skip ahead ten years to find him a loving husband and father, but also prone to petty sexual peccadillos, which the story labors to assure us mean nothing serious. It matters to Martha that her husband cheats on her, however, and she runs away from him — only to have him persuade her that he’s newly determined to be loyal. Tierney is too good at conveying both her sense of betrayal and her hope that he can reform, such that when she reluctantly allows herself to be convinced it felt to me like a form of spousal abuse. Considering that I’m ordinarily prepared to deal with the sexism of 1940s films, I was surprised to find myself truly annoyed with this plot turn; it just doesn’t work. From there the story leaps ahead in time again and again, each time struggling to balance his personal appeal with his significant failings (vanity, jealousy, and so on). Each one of those leaps ahead in time makes Henry’s character (and the whole point of the film) less clear — and it made me start to wish that the Devil really would condemn him to eternal damnation. (He doesn’t.)
With the core of the story dissolving and only vague indications of the protagonist’s motives, we might expect the effervescent Gene Tierney to hold up the film. I could look at her all day — with that oddly determined set of her mouth, which seemed to signal a pragmatism that seems disconcerting in a face otherwise so perfect for Hollywood. “Heaven Can Wait” was the first film in which she received top billing, and it would be less than a year before she would appear in the classic “Laura” (1944) opposite Dana Andrews and Clifton Webb. But despite her top billing here, Lubitsch didn’t urge us to fall in love with her the way he caressed Greta Garbo in every shot of “Ninotchka.” Even worse, as her character arrives in middle age, the film’s hair and makeup people transformed Tierney into an absurd creation. Because I don’t know how to create screen caps I can’t show you the awful grey-haired up-do they forced her to wear (and I can’t find an image online), so you’ll have to trust me that it makes you wonder what she did on the set to deserve it. It’s especially cruel after letting her shine in shots like this, decked out in those blue and lavender numbers that show off her pale blue eyes.
“Heaven Can Wait” always feels as if the story and poor editing choices are pulling the movie down from the heights it might otherwise have achieved with this cast and director. But I’m not deterred from trying to see all his other lesser-known films. But at this point I’m not going to rush into seeing “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “One Hour With You” — films from his early ’30s foray into musicals. Instead, with the news that HBO is producing a new version of “Mildred Pierce” starring Kate Winslet, I’m getting in the mood to see the original Joan Crawford melodrama again. Now that’s how to make a difficult character sympathetic.