"A poignant sadness infiltrates the director's gayest moments," writes Andrew Sarris of Ernst Lubitsch in The American Cinema, "and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch." Of all the Lubitsch movies I've seen, I don't believe any illustrates that statement better than Heaven Can Wait (1943). Seemingly a light-hearted bauble of a movie, the film has running beneath its whimsical surface an unmistakable undercurrent of melancholy. This is not the mordant black comedy of a disillusioned idealist turned cynic, but the detached, bemused comedy of a man who, as Sarris puts it, recognizes "that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules."
As the movie opens, a wizened gentlemen of 70 years presents himself to a tall, well-groomed but slightly sinister-looking man sitting at a desk in a large, sparsely furnished, stylized Technicolor representation of an office, whom he addresses as "Your excellency." The gentleman is the recently deceased Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), and the man at the desk is the devil (Laird Cregar). Henry is resignedly presenting himself for admittance to hell. But the devil demands that Henry first explain why he thinks he belongs there, and Henry starts to relate in flashback his life of misdeeds. "Perhaps the best way to tell you the story of my life is to tell you about the women in my life," he begins. With this line, Lubitsch, the master of Continental sexual innuendo, immediately lures us in: The movie is going to be all about Henry's sexual peccadillos, surely.
Based on a play by the Hungarian playwright Laszlo Bus-Fekete called Birthdays, Heaven Can Wait has been relocated to the upper-class New York City of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Indeed, the movie is organized around the events that take place on several of Henry's notable birthdays. In relating these birthdays to the viewer, Henry tells us about significant events in his life, about the progress of his "sentimental education" in relation to women, and especially about himself. By the end of the movie Henry has revealed more about his true nature than he recognizes, and we have come to know Henry better than he knows himself.
On his fifteenth birthday Henry is plied with champagne and seduced by the French maid, recently hired by his mother to keep up with the changing social fashions of the time. At his 26th birthday party, Henry elopes with his strait-laced cousin's plucky fiancée, Martha (Gene Tierney), a rich young woman from Kansas desperate to escape her hickish parents and live in the big city. Ten years later, on his 36th birthday and 10th wedding anniversary, he must travel to Kansas with his impish grandfather (Charles Coburn) and try to persuade Martha, who has left him because of her suspicions of his philandering, to come home with him. This long sequence is one of the most charming and humorous in the movie, with Ameche, Tierney, Coburn, and also Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as Martha's parents all at their comic peak.
The mood of the movie begins to change perceptibly at the celebration of Henry and Martha's 25th anniversary. Henry, who has noticed that Martha has been spending afternoons away from home, suspects her of having an affair. When he hints at his suspicions to her, she responds with humor: "Why, Henry, I do believe you're jealous." She laughs off his suspicions by explaining that she hasn't been feeling well and has been seeing a doctor. Relieved, Henry waltzes with her in the hallway while the other guests are celebrating in the parlor. This is the last we see of Martha; within a few months she is dead. At 60, Henry is still squiring pretty girls around town and buying them expensive presents, but he seems a bit lost, and is reduced to asking his rather condescending son for money. By his 70th birthday, Henry is a bed-ridden invalid, but still fascinated by women, and smitten by his attractive young nurse.
The tone of the film is light throughout, but even its lightest moments are tinged with a certain sadness. Always we are aware of the unstoppable passage of time; the very choice of Henry's birthdays as a unifying and transitional device underscores this idea. In the events of his life there is a pattern of repetition that frequently reminds us of the circularity of time whirling around like the hands of a clock. When Martha decides to forgive Henry and return home with him from Kansas, sneaking away from her parents' farmhouse in the middle of the night with Henry and Grandfather Van Cleve, she calls it "a second elopement." On his 26th birthday Henry is scolded by his mother for staying out all night. Nearly 35 years later, Henry is scolded by his grown son for the same reason. We first see Henry as a baby in his crib, being cared for by his mother and grandmother. As an old man at the end of the movie, he is again in his bed, being cared for by a nurse. It almost makes you think of Jaques' seven ages of man speech in As You Like It.
As the parade of family characters passes by, it is interesting to note how they bear out the old cliché that personalities seem to skip generations. This certainly appears to be true of the male line of the Van Cleve family. Henry has more in common with his rascal grandfather than he does with his own staid and humorless father. Similarly, Henry's son more closely resembles his grandfather (Henry's father) than he does the irresponsible and pleasure-loving Henry. Henry is never shown holding down any kind of job. Yet his son, by the time he is in his early 30s, is a serious-minded executive running the family business (whatever it is—such practical details have no place in Henry's life story as he relates it) and, in a clear case of role reversal, doling out an allowance to his own father.
Death is directly referred to only at the beginning when Henry presents himself to the devil for judgment and again briefly after Martha dies. Yet the entire movie actually takes place after Henry is dead, and he is literally a dead man telling us the story of his life. Even though not directly mentioned, several other deaths occur offscreen in the intervals between Henry's birthdays—first his grandmother, then his father, then between his 36th and 51st birthdays both his mother and his grandfather. The family butler, Flogdell, appears at several points in the movie. Then suddenly after Henry's 60th birthday the butler again appears, and he is a different, younger man.
Much of the movie takes place in the enclosed world of the Van Cleves' mansion, a place so insular that events like a world war and the Great Depression pass by without a mention and seem to leave the cushioned lives of its inhabitants untouched. As the years pass, the interior decor changes too, from the cluttered Victorian style filled with William Morris-type patterns and much elaborate ornamentation to a simpler style. Several key scenes take place in the library. At Henry's 26th birthday, he sneaks into the library to be with Martha, and it is here that he persuades her to elope with him. Their 25th anniversary finds them again alone in the library while their guests wait in the parlor. It is here that the scene where Henry becomes jealous and Martha first reveals her illness occurs. Late in the movie, Henry and his grown son are alone in the library, and Henry is trying to persuade his son to hire a young woman to come to the house and read to him. Henry wanders around the library as he talks, walks up to a bookcase, and idly takes a book from the shelf. It is a book called How to Please Your Husband, the same book that Henry, pursuing Martha around town the first time he laid eyes on her, saw her buy in Brentano's Book Store nearly 35 years earlier.
The idea of relatively lightweight actors like Don Ameche and the pre-Laura Gene Tierney playing the leads in a Lubitsch film might seem anomalous. After all, here is a director who worked with some of the greatest performers of the time, people like Gary Cooper, Fredric March, James Stewart, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and Claudette Colbert. (Lubitsch was apparently very popular with his actors. He was just about the only person in Hollywood able to get along with the notoriously brittle Miriam Hopkins. He was reportedly Colbert's favorite director, and she worked with some of the very best.) Yet both Tierney and Ameche fill their roles surprisingly well. Tierney looks simply stunning, especially in the pale blue and lavender outfits that accentuate her blue eyes. She projects both sweetness and animation in a very relaxed performance (although reportedly Lubitsch sometimes had to restrain her from overacting). Even in middle age her Martha seems both girlish and just a bit saucy.
Even more surprising is Don Ameche, who was not Lubitsch's first choice to play Henry Van Cleve but was forced on the director by 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck. Lubitsch eventually changed his mind about Ameche's suitability for the part, however, and Ameche gives the performance of his career in the most demanding role he ever played. Henry Van Cleve is the center of the movie. It is, after all, the story of his life. He not only narrates the film but appears in nearly every scene. He must convincingly age from 26 to 70, and Ameche does this with amazing verisimilitude. With the assistance of some very good makeup, he conveys the passing of the years with skillful modulations of his voice—its pitch, strength, and phrasing—as well as his facial expressions and posture.
But his performance consists of more than just externals. Henry is a man who really has no objective view of his own life and actions (that is left up to Lubitsch and the camera to provide), a man whose self-image is at odds with his true nature. Henry truly believes himself to be corrupt, a dissolute libertine who deserves to spend eternity in hell. The truth is that he is at heart not the dissipated roué he believes himself to be, but rather an innocent: the soul he offers for judgment is a young and benign one. In many ways he is at the age of 70 still harmless and child-like. His fascination with women has more to do with glorifying and idealizing them than with seducing them. It is sensual without really being sexual, as Martha realizes when she playfully calls him "my obstinate little boy" and "my little Casanova." And Ameche subtly conveys all this in a very nuanced performance.
In the end, Heaven Can Wait is at its heart a tender love story, one played out to the nostalgic melody of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," which we hear over the opening credits and which later becomes Henry and Martha's love theme. Henry's eye and attention may wander from time to time, but it is Martha to whom he is devoted. When the morning after meeting Martha he earnestly tells his mother that Martha is the woman of his life, he is not exaggerating. After the death of Martha, Ameche's demeanor suggests that this is a man whose life is now shaded with an unshakable sense of sadness. Even though Henry still has the capacity to enjoy life and to go through the motions of adoring the female sex, he has really lost the center of his life.
But this movie is a fantasy, right? As a filmmaker, Lubitsch was by temperament incapable of dwelling on dreariness, and the mythic Lubitsch touch is always a light one, finding humor even in a serious situation. At the end of the film when the devil rejects Henry and tells him to go to heaven, he holds out to Henry the possibility of being reunited with Martha in some kind of afterlife. In Lubitsch's bittersweet world, pleasure and sadness go together like positive and negative magnetic charges, and who can really say which is the dominant mode?