Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Samson Raphaelson; based on Birthday by Leslie Bush-Fekete
Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager
by Jon Cvack
In the Criterion Collection’s bonus features there was a discussion between film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris, which while not all that interesting, contained a brilliant point about how we’re now so self-conscious about class that films like this are no longer allowed. Haskell brings up Spanglish (2004) and how, while exploring an upper middle class family, is more about the guilt of having a servant and living a privileged life than it is about the beauty of such privilege. I never really thought about how few films portray wealthy family’s or characters these days, allowing escape to those experiencing economic hardship as seen in many of the films between the 20s and extending up to the early 1950s (Downtown Abbey is as close as I can think of). Woody Allen might be the one director who has continued the exploration, though he also idolizes this period of films, having grown up with them. Haskell is right, if such films continued, social media would have a field day. Audiences have difficulty accepting the escape such stories can provide, instead criticizing the material as disconnected.
Heaven Can Wait follows the life of Henry von Cleve (Don Ameche) from the moment he dies and finds himself in purgatory, having to explain his womanizing to the devil, named His Excellency (Laird Cregar), in order to fast track his plunge to hell. Thus begins his childhood, when his parents hired an attractive French Maid who Henry thrillingly accepts as she promises to teach him the ways of women. In this post-code film where men and women couldn’t even be shown in the same bed together, let alone suggesting sex, Lubitsch shows us the life of a womanizer and philanderer without ever explicitly stating it, to the point where if you’re not paying attention, you’d miss it.
After discovering that his successful lawyer cousin Hugo von Cleve (Charles Coburn) has brought home a girl Martha (Gene Tierney), whom Henry had met just moments before at a bookstore, pursuing her with all the charm he could muster. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, you know it’s the classical period of film when a man is willing to marry a beautiful woman literally within a day of meeting her. Thus, at the engagement party between Hugo and Martha, Henry lifts her away and they elope. Martha’s parents then disown her, vowing to cut off the dowry.
Ten years into the marriage, the couple have a child, and Henry receives a telegram from Martha, saying she ran away back home to Kansas. Again, given the code, Lubitsch’s subtly could easily be missed, as Martha produces a receipt showing that while Henry spent $10,000 on a diamond necklace for her, he also spent $500 on a bracelet which she’s never seen. At first I figured there was an excuse, and then realized, or at least suspected, that this wasn’t a mistake; that Henry actually had cheated, and Martha’s rejection of any and all of his excuses were based on a decade long era of cheating and womanizing. Of course, we don’t see any of this, and given that we don’t see it, for a moment I was on Henry’s side, until I pieced together the whole story and realized that the reason he was in Purgatory was for the fact that he had spent a lifetime cheating on his wife.
Of course she forgives him, and the two approach their silver anniversary, with their son Randolph (Louis Calhern) having taken up with a beautiful dancer who Henry hopes to pursue on the side, while also attempting to sabotage their relationship in order to prevent any damage to the family name. In a great scene, we see Henry discover his own age, realizing he’s no longer the young “casanova” as many compare him to, but a middle aged man who has begun to grow a tummy. Still, I wasn’t sure if the two ever had relations, or if it was simply a professional arrangement to get the dancer away from Randolph.
Eventually, Henry puts aside his pursuits, appreciating beautiful women, but more appreciative of Martha who has stuck by his side. And so when he discovers that she’s ill and that their 25th Anniversary has been their last, he regresses back to his old ways. Once again, we don’t see it, so much as watch as Randolph castigates Henry for being too old to be going about the way he is. Henry’s love of women is so strong that even on his deathbed, as the ‘ugly’ nurse is replaced with a beautiful blond, the narrator tells us that it brought about such a strong rush of blood that it ended up killing him.
In the end, His Excellency believes that Henry has a place in heaven; that what he was did wasn’t all that bad compared to others. It’s a testament to the way things once were, where woman were so subservient to men that they essentially had to put up with infidelity or risk losing the life they had. Still, the film is beautiful in its light approach to infidelity, showing that lust doesn’t necessarily mean love. With the Lubitsch style and touch we got to witness a world so different from our own, full of beautiful people and expensive homes and lives so far removed from most of our, shot in gorgeous technicolor. It’s a great film from the classical period.
BELOW: A taste of the film's wealth, class, and race privilege
Thoughts on films, old and new
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