Saturday, January 9, 2016
#291: Heaven Can Wait
I recently rewatched one of my favorite movies for (surprisingly) the first time since I began this blog, so I thought I'd put down a few thoughts on what Heaven Can Wait means to me both as a work of cinema and on a purely emotional level.
I came to Ernst Lubitsch through the work of another significant director in my life's journey through cinema, the great Billy Wilder. My first exposure to Wilder came - like many budding cinephiles - from Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, but as I soon graduated to the impeccable The Apartment and Ninotchka, which he wrote for the director he idolized, Ernst Lubitsch. His stories of Lubitsch (including Wilder's famous office sign that read "How would Lubitsch do it?") clued me in to the high stature of the earlier director and gave Wilder a deep connection to early comedy and the original Hollywood. I loved Ninotchka, not so much for the brilliant but dated satire of communism and capitalism alike, but for the small, perfect moments that I would soon find out were examples of the "Lubitsch touch," that ineffable genius that would come to be bastardized but never equaled in screenplay writing through the rest of Hollywood history. Soon after I saw The Shop Around the Corner and To Be Or Not to Be, but in the 90s many of Lubitsch's movies were difficult to find - some, like the best, Trouble in Paradise, weren't even available on VHS.
One late night on TCM I came across Heaven Can Wait, a Lubitsch picture that was well-regarded in its time (Lubitsch and the picture were even nominated for Oscars), but had slipped into his second tier as the director had gone out of fashion and its stars had failed to attain the legendary status of Lubitsch luminaries like Greta Garbo and Jimmy Stewart (Ameche is now much better known for his later career as an older character actor in films like Trading Places and Cocoon, while Tierney - who made the absolute classic Laura right after this film - had a tragic decline in the 50s due to poor treatment for mental health issues). There have only been a handful of movies in my life that I've stumbled upon and loved as much as I loved Heaven Can Wait.
The movie is a sort of unconventional romantic comedy, in that it's a comedy and a romance, though it doesn't follow the typical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-becomes-a-gorilla template of a romantic comedy. The entire movie is told from the perspective of Ameche's character after his death, where he makes the case to the devil why he should be in Hell. This is the kind of high concept premise for a movie that Lubitsch often used as a jumping off point, which is to say the movie isn't really about Henry Van Cleve getting into Hell anymore than My Dinner With Andre is about eating food. The Devil does have a few great lines, most notably "Sometimes it looks as if the whole world is coming to Hell." But it quickly transitions to Van Cleve's life story. It never gives up the narration, using it most often to transition from one segment of his life to another, and Lubitsch (and his screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson) uses Van Cleve's birthday as a anchor in each segment to tell the story, most elegantly with the use of ties as birthday presents as Henry gets older.
There are many great things about Heaven Can Wait, but the star of the film is Charles Coburn, who plays Van Cleve's grandfather. Coburn was one of the great character actors of all time and he steals every scene he's in here, even the ones with Eugene Pallett, another legendary actor who plays Van Cleve's father-in-law. Coburn almost never has a line come out of his mouth that is anything less than the best line in any other movie it would find itself in, and his character is the beating heart of the film. I love so many moments from Coburn - and often quote "And so farewell Mr. E.F. Strable, we'll take Martha, you keep Mabel!" - but the one I always come back to is when his son (and Ameche's father) declares that he would never even know where the backdoor of a show would be and he promptly replies "It's around the back, down an alley. You can't miss it." It's a great Lubitsch joke, but the way Coburn delivers the line with a mix of exasperation, condescension, and matter-of-fact honesty sells it so brilliantly that you wonder where talent like that has gone.
Coburn and Pallette (who has a great scene at his breakfast table) are eternally memorable in the film, but the rest of the supporting cast leaves the film with a wealth of riches. Allyn Joslyn as Albert is pitch-perfect as usual, but Signe Hasso as the French maid and Spring Byington, who was another great character actor from the era, have their moments, too. Gene Tierney was beautiful, but she never really had the screen presence of the top tier stars of the 40s. Still, her best scene here is when Ameche convinces her to run away with him (or so he thinks) and she breaks down in tears about the risk of living alone in Kansas and she nails it. Ameche, too, rises to the occasion, with a mile-a-minute delivery that sells his character's sly behavior as lovable and innocent.
It's this sly behavior that makes the film a complicated love story, though. When evaluating Van Cleve's philandering in the context of what is a memorable and moving love affair, two pieces of context need to be taken into account. First, Heaven Can Wait was made in the code era, when clear extramarital affairs needed to have clear consequences (see: Double Indemnity). This means that Van Cleve's indiscretions were destined to be a little vague. It's not entirely clear how far he goes either before or after he is married to Martha, though the implication is certainly there. Second, the film is told from Van Cleve's perspective as he makes his case to the devil, providing us with an unreliable narrator. This means that the way Martha is portrayed (an unflinching angel with the best of intentions) or the way Albert is portrayed (a clueless know-it-all with nothing but the short end of the stick) or really even the way Van Cleve himself is portrayed cannot be fully trusted. Now, of course, the film breaks this rule on multiple occasions, most notably when Martha runs away and we see her parents before her arrival and while Albert helps her return. And, as I mentioned before, Lubitsch is really using this framing device as a way to tell the story rather than as the intended thrust of the narrative. So the influence of both pieces of context are difficult to pin down. Perhaps the code wasn't a conscious barrier to the story Lubitsch wanted to tell, and perhaps Raphaelson never intended to lead the audience to believe Van Cleve was bending the story, and each scene was written without the second-hand nature of the telling in mind.
It's the love story itself that makes you want to believe that the code played no part but Van Cleve's storytelling made him out to be worse than he was. Henry and Martha seem so perfect for each other, so in love and so well-matched in what they want from life and what they can take in the other person, that you can't help but forgive Henry his indiscretions as much as Martha can. The final moment of the couple together dancing as their life together has passed by is one of the beautiful scenes in Lubitsch's career, and it caps off one of the great Hollywood love stories I've ever seen. If Henry is unfaithful to Martha, and if Martha was as perfect as she seems, then she knew it and didn't care, she was willing to accept the bad with the good, and isn't that enough for us to avoid judgement? Surely if Satan himself can do it we can, too.
The rest of the movie manages to balance the light and the deep with similar ease. The movie never stops delivering quick lines and delightful scenarios, but it also has a depth that the average comedy lacked even in the golden age of Hollywood. Lubitsch manages to show the evolution of New York from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century with ease, while the circular nature of the film's family lends weight to Henry's life arc. His son's indiscretions plant the seed for Henry's own realization about his youth, while his own maturing over the course of the film underscores the inevitably of life's forward pull. Like many movies of the era, Henry is a protagonist born into wealth who never has to worry a day in his life, but this is forgiven as another of his mild indiscretions. The concern of both Henry and the film is women, and anything else is merely a distraction.
Heaven Can Wait is one of the few movies I have actually suggested to Criterion - I did so way back in the early 2000s. I suggested it because I felt confident that Lubitsch was enough to get anyone's attention, and if they actually saw the thing it would be impossible to avoid falling in love with it. These many years later it still affects me in ways that are unexpected considering just how little any of it relates to my own life experience or relationship. That speaks to Lubitsch's ability to take something that is essentially a piece of craft and make it breathe. The director made better movies in his career, but none of them are closer to my heart than this one.