10 July 2006 | senortuffy
Sentimental comedy from one of the masters, Ernst Lubitsch
This is the last of a series of hit comedies Ernst Lubitsch made in the years just before and during World War II. Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), That Uncertain Feeling (1941), To Be or Not To Be (1942), and this one, Heaven Can Wait (1943), make up the core of a very successful body of work for one of Hollywood's finest directors.
If there is one phrase to characterize the "Lubitsch touch," then I would say "light romantic comedies," the kind made popular by Hollywood in the late years of the Depression. His films didn't have the subtle commentary on American life that Capra's did, but were more along the lines of old fashioned entertainment.
Heaven Can Wait is based on a play written by a Hungarian (all of Lubitsch's films during this period were written by European emigrés like himself, and as such have a more cosmopolitan flair than most American films). It follows the life of a Victorian playboy, Henry Van Cleve, of Fifth Avenue, New York, and is told in retrospective by the hero as he explains his life to His Excellency, the Devil.
Don Ameche is the main character and delivers a fine performance as the boyish rogue who falls in love with a beautiful girl from Kansas City, played by Gene Tierney. The film covers Van Cleve's life from childhood through a reckless adolescence up through his happy marriage and the years after his wife dies. It's a sentimental journey told with much levity.
The film has a number of terrific character actors in it, the most notable performance coming from Charles Coburn, who plays the grandfather everyone wishes they had - quick witted, caring, and always supportive of his grandson. Marjorie Main, Eugene Palette (the froggy-voice friar in Mark of Zorro), Spring Byington, and Louis Calhern make up the rest of the supporting cast.
While I enjoyed this film, it's not as well-crafted as some of his earlier work. Perhaps the "Lubitsch touch" had worn itself out, and perhaps the changing times had caught up to him. Considering that the war was going on at the time, the film does seem a bit out of place. Perhaps that accounts for the lack of depth in some of the performances.
I rarely bother to look up who the art director was in a film, but the visuals in this one were so striking, I had to know who was responsible. James Basevi was the art director (basically, the interior scenery) and was much used by Hollywood's leading directors of the time - Hitchcock and John Ford among them. The lobby of the waiting room for Hell was especially appealing in a 40's art deco way.
This was the final hit film Ernst Lubitsch ever produced. He made a few more films in the following years, inconsequential stuff compared to his earlier work, then passed away in 1947, during a period when Hollywood was turning to the stark reality of film noir.
By contemporary standards, this film is a bit light, but it's funny and touching in its sentimentality, and it's an enjoyable bit of entertainment from a bygone era.