A problem with cinematic sagas—narrative films that encompass an extensive number of years, for instance, generations of a particular family—is that they are missing an essential element: transience; a sense of the passage of time. One of the causes of this outcome is that such films tend to be overproduced, leaving little space for time and the yielding of one time to the next. None of this, however, afflicts Heaven Can Wait, a film as spacious as it is fine and fragile despite the years it covers in chronicling the life and death of Henry Van Cleve. Based on a play by Leslie Bush-Fekete that Samuel Raphaelson has adapted, and beautifully directed by Ernst Lubitsch (in lovely three-strip Technicolor), here is a glowing, very funny, delicately poignant comedic “saga” of a Casanova whose compulsive appetite for meaningless affairs with women throughout his life convinces him he is a candidate for hell. Molly Haskell, in her DVD commentary (in conversation with spouse and fellow critic Andrew Sarris), provocatively suggests that Henry’s sexual behavior has been his attempt to elude time, to flee—at least still—an oppressive mortal awareness. Time shadows Henry Van Cleve.
The film begins with Henry in the anteroom of hell, where he and “His Excellency,” an elegant version of Satan, review his life to determine his eligibility for entrance. His unwavering love for Martha, his wife, will lead to the ultimate judgment that Henry needs to be taken by elevator up: a conclusion, perhaps because it is cumulative rather than arbitrarily attached, that never fails to move me to tears. Of course, Henry did not wish to enter heaven because doing so would mean experiencing the shame of facing Martha again; Henry feels unworthy of her eternal companionship. At the same time, he desires nothing so much as this reunion. One cannot help but notice that (except by inference) God is entirely absent from the metaphysical scheme that the film posits—a reflection of Henry’s own moral passivity. But isn’t it likely that this aspect of Henry’s personality and behavior also reflects something profound in the filmmaker? There is the assault by Nazis—to an extent that would be determined only later—on the European Jewish community. Lubitsch himself was a German-born Jew. Current history, then, is what was shadowing him, and some of Henry’s “passivity” inevitably reflects Lubitsch’s sense of helplessness regarding the unfolding European tragedy. This helps explain the emotional depth of a nostalgic comedy that is, after all, so lightly presented as this one is.
Three of the performances are marvelous. Henry Van Cleve would mark the best acting of his career had Don Ameche not given his gripping performance a few years earlier in Archie Mayo’s wartime Four Sons (1940). Even so, the revelation here is beauteous Gene Tierney, who plays Martha with warmth, poise, charm and graciousness such as she would never muster again. As her obstreperous father who detests his son-in-law, Eugene Pallette is riotously funny.
Heaven Can Wait received Oscar nominations as best film and for Lubitsch’s superlative direction. It is a crying shame what won both prizes instead.
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