Title: Heaven Can Wait
Language: English, French
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Fantasy
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenwriter: Samson Raphaelson
based on the play BIRTHDAY of Leslie Bush-Fekete
Music: Alfred Newman
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Under its full-blown Technicolor aureole, HEAVEN CAN WAIT becomes the one and only oddity in Lubitsch’s canon, it is also a three-time Oscar nominee including BEST PICTURE and BEST DIRECTOR, adapted from Leslie Bush-Fekete’s stage play BIRTHDAY. Indeed, this dissection of a boulevardier’s seventy-year life orbit is demarcated through his birthdays.
Arriving at the entrance of Hell (grandiloquently designed futuristic tableau), the freshly-departed Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) meets the Hades the Excellency (Cregar), and takes for granted that he would go to hell, but His Excellency suggests Henry to chronicle his entire life to him, so that he can make the judgement whether Henry is qualified or otherwise. Before that, a flashy but over-the-hill old acquaintance of Henry, Ms. Edna Craig (un uncredited Bates), has be squarely sent to the infernal by the eyeball-rolling Excellency, after all, it is difficult to bypass the annoyance that the picture has been inexorably sullied by the double gender standard of its time. Anyway, that is only a sidebar note.
Henry is born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the only child of Randolph (Calhern) and Bertha (Byington), his parents are stuffy and prissy, but Henry takes after his grandfather Hugo Van Cleve (Coburn), a self-made millionaire. From his prepubescent years, he has already acquired a natural knack of wooing girls, garnished with a little influence from a snazzy French maid (Hasso, a resplendent accompaniment), a rake is officially born. It is at his 26-year-old birthday party, a chance-meeting of the girl of his dream, Martha Strable (Tierney), the fiancée of Henry’s pedantic cousin Albert (Joslyn), Henry wastes no time to propose an elopement together which sweeps Martha off her feet, and unceremoniously scandalizes the rest of the family and on-lookers (maybe not grandpa). Ten years later, everything seems to remain status quo (although Randolph has exited the scene at this point), Henry is a 36-year-older, he and Martha have a son Jack, grandpa is still sprightly, and later will assist Henry to win back Martha for a second time at the Strables’ in Kansas, where Lubitsch cooks up a splendidly humorous skit between Martha’s warring parents (Pallette and Main) with their butler Jasper (Muse) as a brilliant intermediary.
The good-natured Martha will take her bow after their 25th wedding anniversary, leaves Henry to the adult Jack (Andrews), who is gallant enough to take over the family business while Henry, as years go by, never grows out of his man-child carapace, not even when he is in extemis, just after celebrating his 70th birthday, all he wants is a sultry nurse to send him down to the road (his exit music is tellingly, Franz Lehar’s MERRY WIDOW WALTZ), only to be denied by the over-courtly Excellency, heaven can wait, after all, since one’s raffish behavior alone doesn’t guarantee to descend into hellhole, it is the aggregate that really counts.
Coyly leaving all of Henry’s dalliances off-screen, Lubitsch’s touch only focuses on his more meritorious facets such as his well-maintained marriage with Martha, and his cautious move to sever off the possible relationship between a money-seeking showgirl and Jack. Don Ameche’s sublimely debonair affinity perfectly accentuates Henry’s salutary charm, which merely makes his self-effacing lamenting on his senility and growing pouch sound too mawkish to concur (the make-up department is not really helping either). Gene Tierney, first-billed for her star power rather than her screen time, is four-square enough to exemplify the image of an immaculate wife with Charles Coburn naughtily playing harmless tricks and being sagacious in the side lane.
Still, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, in the face of its joie-de-vivre grandstanding, deep down, there is a tangible twinge of loss and sudden departures hits audience harder than it lets on, through the ellipsis of characters when time jumps, ineffably tempers the life-affirming tale with a knowing poignancy, gladly so, maestro Lubitsch never disappoints us.