Director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 comedy Heaven Can Wait is a witty and, at times, surreal film starring Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. I’ll note now that the 1978 Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty is not a remake of Lubitsch’s film. Though the film only won one Oscar for Best Cinematography, the acting, writing, and interesting premise makes this film a “must watch.”
The movie begins with an elderly man named Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) entering the reception area of Hell. He attracts the attention of His Excellency, played by Laird Cregar, and, at the request of His Excellency, Van Cleve tells his life story and why he may belong in Hell. From this point the movie tracks the life of a complex and very charming Van Cleve. He is the only child, born into late-Victorian privilege and spoiled by parents who only see the best in him. From the time he is a young boy, Van Cleve understands his effect on women and he quickly learns to take advantage. He particularly has a knack for spinning stories to manipulate the situation. But because of his charm, Van Cleve gets away with his partying and gambling habits. If he needs money, for example, his parents give it to him without any hesitation or much criticism. It seems as though his life is completely charmed.
One night Van Cleve falls in love with the beautiful Martha, played by Tierney. Martha, however, is engaged to Van Cleve’s successful, but very boring cousin. Martha realizes that she loves Van Cleve and she runs away with him. The relationship between Martha and Van Cleve is not a simple one. While Van Cleve adores his wife, he struggles with his dissolute propensities. As the story unfolds, Van Cleve and Martha experience the heartache of infidelity and the audience waits in anticipation to see whether Van Cleve’s choices will destroy his marriage and ultimately send him into the bowels of hell.
Heaven Can Wait is both very intelligent and funny. The dialogue is witty, particularly between the Van Cleve family members. The bantering and arguing often parodies the naiveté of Victorian culture. Charles Coburn, who plays Van Cleve’s grandfather, pierces the veil of stuffy civilities with his sharp tongue. He says what everyone is thinking, but is too afraid to say out loud.
Though actor Laird Cregar, who plays His Excellency, doesn’t have too many scenes in this film, his presence is unforgettable. His appearance alone makes him stand out. He was 6’3” with a broad chest and face that could convincingly play the Devil. Prior to this movie, Cregar was gaining popularity as a character actor. Unfortunately, Heaven Can Wait was one of his last films. Always insecure about his size, he took extreme measures to lose a hundred pounds. He died at the age of 31 of a heart attack.
Not all movies stand the test of time. Heaven Can Wait is a movie that almost anyone could relate to because, at some point or another, we review our lives and question the decisions we have made. Plus, the movie is entertaining. Don Ameche is charismatic and funny, and Tierney is simply mesmerizing. Not too many films made prior to 1950 are remembered today, which makes this romantic comedy a diamond in the rough.