Monday, August 3, 2015

Heaven Can Wait (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a couple of movies featuring Gene Tierney for the first night of Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” tribute during which they devote each day to the films of a single star. (Note that they don’t always show films in which the person they’re paying tribute to is the star; perhaps the lowest point they’ve ever reached was the day they showed the 1952 Quo Vadis? as part of a tribute to Sophia Loren. She’s in the film, all right, but only unrecognizably; she and her mom got jobs as extras during one of the big crowd scenes.) The first Tierney movie we caught Saturday night was Heaven Can Wait, a 1943 romantic comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch at 20th Century-Fox — where he’d ended up after a checkered career. Lubitsch had his first successes in his native Germany in the early 1920’s, and he was brought to the U.S. by Mary Pickford to direct her in a big spectacle film called Rosita. It flopped, but Warner Bros. — then a minor studio — picked up Lubitsch and put him to work directing the sort of film he would become famous for, raffish romantic comedies that would push the envelope of censorship without outright tearing through it. The archetypal Lubitsch shot — and there’s an example of it in Heaven Can Wait — is of two people heading through the doorway to a bedroom, and then the door seen closing behind them, allowing us to imagine what they’re going to be doing behind that door instead of hurling the actors’ private parts in our faces as happens in all too many movies today.

Just before sound came in Lubitsch jumped Warners for the greener pastures of Paramount, where he would make most of his best films — including his talking debut, the lovably raffish The Love Parade with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald; Monte Carlo; The Smiling Lieutenant; One Hour with You (originally assigned to George Cukor but taken over by Lubitsch); and what’s probably his best film, the awesome Trouble in Paradise. Though Lubitsch occasionally brought his fabled “touch” to other studios (he turned up at MGM in 1934 to make The Merry Widow, the final Chevalier-MacDonald film) but for the most part stayed at Paramount, where in 1935 he was actually appointed head of production over the entire studio. (Director Josef von Sternberg recalled in his autobiography that he had been called on the carpet by Lubitsch for an extravagant crowd scene he had put into his film about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress — a scene actually directed by Lubitsch himself for The Patriot, a 1928 silent about Catherine’s son, Czar Paul!) Alas, Lubitsch’s Continental sensibilities and what American moviegoers wanted to see were increasingly diverging — and the tighter enforcement of the Production Code after 1934 made it harder for Lubitsch to make his envelope-pushing movies as either director or producer — so in 1938 Paramount fired him. He signed with MGM and made two imperishable classics, Ninotchka (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1942), but eventually Louis B. Mayer decided (as the Paramount bosses had four years earlier) that Lubitsch was too out of touch with American tastes and let him go. He ended up at 20th Century-Fox, where he worked for the last four years of his life until dying in the middle of shooting a film called That Lady in Ermine, starring Betty Grable. (Production head Darryl F. Zanuck replaced Lubitsch with Otto Preminger, apparently because they were both German, but Grable, who’d got along well with the easygoing Lubitsch, hated the tyrannical Preminger and remembered the second leg of the That Lady in Ermine shoot as one of the most miserable experiences of her career.) For his first 20th Century-Fox production Lubitsch seized on a play by Hungarian author Ladislas Bus-Fekete called Birthday because all the crucial events that happen in the central character’s life seem to take place on or immediately after his birthday.

Lubitsch moved the action to New York City in the late 19th and early 20th century and changed the title to Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the 1978 Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty, which was actually a remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan), and he began it with one of the most audacious framing sequences of all time. The recently deceased Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche, in old-age makeup strikingly reminiscent of Orson Welles’ get-up as the aging Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane) shows up in a brightly lit office, as garish as only three-strip Technicolor could make it, interviewing with “His Excellency,” a.k.a. Satan (Laird Cregar, superb as usual), to establish his credentials for entering hell. “If you meet our requirements, we’ll be only too glad to accomodate you,” “His Excellency” tells Henry. “Uh, would you be good enough to mention, for instance, some outstanding crime you’ve committed?” “Crime? Crime?” Henry replies. “I’m afraid I can’t think of any, but I can safely say my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor.” That pretty much gives away the ending — Henry is going to find out, much to his surprise, that his sins, such as they were, were pretty penny-ante stuff and he belongs in heaven rather than hell — but as with so many of Lubitsch’s films, it’s the getting there that’s virtually all the fun. Henry Van Cleve is played by Scotty Beckett at age nine, by Dickie Moore at 15 and Don Ameche as an adult (again like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, he grows a moustache midway through the film to make himself look middle-aged instead of twenty-something), and in each incarnation he’s cheeky, irresistibly attracted to women (and irresistible to them until the mordantly funny scene towards the end in which he finds the showgirl he’s cruising is already dating his son!) but also, from his 20’s on, in an on-again, off-again (but, this being 1943 instead of 1933, mostly on-again) marriage to Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney, who for some reason got top billing over Ameche even though he was a bigger star and had more screen time), who was the fiancée of Henry’s strait-laced brother Albert (Allyn Joslyn) until Henry seduced her away from him and got her to elope. Heaven Can Wait is filled with all those great supporting actors that made so many classic-era Hollywood movies delightful, including Charles Coburn as Henry’s dad Hugo (who’s constantly giving him nudge-nudge, wink-wink signals that he thinks Henry’s wayward ways are A-O.K. despite the censorious disapproval of the rest of the family) and Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as Martha’s parents. Pallette’s character, meat packer E. F. Strable, has created “Mabel the Cow” as the advertising icon for his company’s canned beef, and written the slogan, “To the world my name is Mabel, which you’ll find on every label; I am packed by E. F. Strable for the pleasure of your table.” “No cow in its right mind could have said anything like that,” Henry acidly comments. “Sounds more like Mr. Strable.”