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Heaven Can Wait (March 24, 2011)

Heaven Can Wait fits into a subgenre of Forties movies, which I would call stories of heaven and the afterlife. You may have seen many of them yourselves. They include, for instance, The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945) with Jack Benny playing an angel, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), where the recently deceased millionaire Robert Montgomery comes back to earth as a prizefighter and tries to make amends for his previous life, and the British film A Matter of Life and Death (1946), by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who made two other films we will see later in this series. The genre even includes that Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1947), where the angel Clarence, played by Henry Travers, shows Jimmy Stewart what Bedford Falls would have been like without him. Heaven is often depicted as an art deco set, and escalators and elevators play major roles.

So this movie has Don Ameche recounting his life and loves, via flashbacks, to Satan, played by Laird Cregar, in hell. It was written by Samson Raphaelson, and was based on a Hungarian play by Laszlo Bus-Fekete. It was filmed from February through April, 1943. It was Ernst Lubitsch’s first film for Twentieth Century Fox and his first film in Technicolor. It features a whole variety of character actors of the films of that time, including Charles Coburn as Don Ameche’s grandfather, Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as Gene Tierney’s parents, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, and the divine Florence Bates, in the briefest of cameos, as a visitor to hell. This is a very charming film, which I think you’ll like.

Don Ameche told the Saturday Evening Post in 1946 that his role in this film had “greater scope than any other picture I have played in,” and even in a 1983 interview, Ameche still recalled this performance as his favorite. Ernst Lubitsch had other actors in mind for the leading role in this film. Darryl Zanuck, the studio head, sent a screen test of Ameche over to Lubitsch. When Lubitsch saw it he said “He’s good. Isn’t that awful!” Gene Tierney was something of an understated actress, who was quoted as delivering one of the classic lines about the movies, “Everyone should see Hollywood once, I think, through the eyes of a teenage girl who has just passed a screen test.” While this role didn’t display the conflicted motivations she showed in Laura (1944), which is probably the film she is most remembered for today, her performance here is quite good, although there is one wig that I wish Wayne Forrest, the studio hairstylist, had not inflicted on her. You’ll see it. I won’t have to point it out.

William Paul, a film professor, remarks in his notes on this DVD that Heaven Can Wait takes the form of the biopic but turns the genre upside down by applying its conventions to a character of no significance. Lubitsch wrote about this film “I encountered partly great resistance before I made this picture, because it had no message and made no point whatsoever. The hero was a man only interested in good living, with no aim of accomplishing anything, or doing anything noble.” Paul also notes that the color grows increasingly muted as the film progresses toward the present-day of the audiences watching it. Heaven Can Wait was nominated for the best picture Oscar, Lubitsch was nominated for the best director Oscar for it, and Edward Cronjager was nominated for best color cinematography for it. Like Meet Me in St. Louis, which we’ll see in two weeks, it’s a view of America at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century that struck a responsive chord with the audiences of its time. I hope you enjoy watching Heaven Can Wait with me tonight.