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.

There’s something in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Design for Living” (1933) that I haven’t seen in other films of the same era:  female sexual desire.  Mix that into a ménage à trois between Miriam Hopkins and two men — Frederic March and Gary Cooper — and you have a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen on screen until now.

Very loosely based on a Noël Coward play (which was itself very loosely based on the personal lives of stage actors Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, who were two of Coward’s best friends), and completely rewritten by Ben Hecht and reimagined by Lubitsch, the film centers on Tommy, a playwright, and George, a painter, who both fall for sparky young advertising artist Gilda.  Within days she finds she’s fallen, too; except she’s fallen in love with both of them.  “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men,” she explains:

You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out.”

For about five minutes this poses a serious problem for the men, who seem to face a crisis in their friendship.  But they’ve missed the solution Gilda is proposing:  That the three of them experiment with a purely platonic arrangement of living together in the same, shabby Montmartre apartment, with Gilda serving as their “mother of the arts” to spark and hone their creative genius.  To make this threesome work, they make what they call a “gentleman’s agreement”:  “No sex.”  And indeed, she’s responsible for their subsequent success.  First, she barnstorms a producer’s apartment to drop a copy of Tommy’s new play on his desk.  “It’s a woman’s play!” she pronounces triumphantly, and everyone in the room sits up and pays attention.  (I was initially going to dedicate this post to that line alone.)  Soon Tommy is whisked off to London to see it through rehearsals and opening night.

With him away, Gilda and George can no longer repress their passion for one another.  She’s always had a tendency to be slightly louche, and to throw herself onto beds in a serio-comic pose of female disconcertion.  Realizing that sex with Tommy is now an inevitability, Gilda throws herself onto the bed and pronounces, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement — but unfortunately, I am no gentleman!”  (Fade.)

Tommy is crushed when he hears of this development, when he comes back to Paris and finds George temporarily out of town, he sadly reminds her of their previously happy life by pointing to his old typewriter they’ve kept, even though it’s in sorry shape:

Tommy, accusing:  “You didn’t keep it oiled.”
Gilda:  “I did for a while.”
Tommy:  “The keys are rusty.  The shift is broken.”  Gilda slides the carriage, causing the typewriter to “ding.”  They look at each other with surprise.
Gilda:  “But it still rings!”  He walks over to be close to her.
Gilda, repeating:  “It still rings.”
Tommy, meaningfully:  “Does it?”

So he and Gilda take a turn indulging in a night of passion — which they regret as soon as George returns.  Horrified by the prospect of losing them and destroying the men’s friendship, she runs off and marries Edward Everett Horton, a tedious advertising suit.  But Tommy and George reconcile and determine to find her again.

In other pre-Code films, women either deploy sex as a means of gaining power (Barbara Stanwyck in “Baby Face,” for example, which I described briefly earlier this month) or to signal their looseness (Jean Harlow in virtually anything before 1933).  Seeing Hopkins genuinely drawn to both men — and unable to control her sexual desire for them — makes one realize what movies might have been able to say about female sexuality if it hadn’t been for the Code.  This film genuinely wants its audiences to imagine a situation in which one woman might have two live-in lovers — a situation that doesn’t end in tears and melodrama.  Lubitsch always keeps the tone light, but the subject matter is fairly radical.

Even more radical were the queer overtones in Tommy and George’s relationship, which Coward’s play explored in detail.  But just because they’re subtle in the film doesn’t mean they’ve been erased.  From the outset, we know that this is a genuine triangle; these men love each other just as much as they’re attracted to Gilda, and to ruin their love would be just as tragic as one man losing the woman.  It wouldn’t be long before the Code would truly stub out such images.

“Design for Living” is ultimately one of those near-miss kinds of films — its dialogue doesn’t quite sparkle, and its actors never quite stop being talky and self-conscious.  Gary Cooper was 31 and at the height of his beauty, but not yet at the height of the comic skills that would appear so gracefully in “Mr. Deeds Comes to Town” (at 31, Cooper had already appeared — incredibly — in 61 films).  Compared with her male co-stars, the relative newcomer Hopkins appears the most suited for the film’s scope, and she looks increasingly terrific in every glamorous outfit.  The “Lubitsch touch” that made other films radiant — “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Ninotchka,” “Trouble in Paradise” — doesn’t quite jell here.

But to see a comedy from 1933 that takes for granted that a woman has independent sexual desire, and that this will not lead her to abjection, regret, or early death:  how rare it is.  As Gilda herself puts it to her husband on their wedding night, as he pronounces that he has “forgiven” her for her earlier sexual peccadillos, “Forgiven me?!  Forgiven me for what?”  Thank you.

Oooh! check out this nice tumblr with images/ scenes from Design for Living.