Monday, August 19, 2013

Heaven Can Wait (1943): The Lubitsch Touch of Crime

Heaven Can Wait (1943) is one of the Siren's favorite Lubitsch films, which means in turn that it is one of her favorite films, period. It was made at 20th Century Fox, which you'd also know just from the title card above. (On Twitter, Comrade Lou Lumenick once asked if Darryl Zanuck had a needlepoint artist on salary; you could tell who were the real classic-movie hounds just by looking at who found that hilarious enough to retweet.) Fox films aren't part of the Turner library and they have only begun screening at Turner Classic Movies in the past few years. Rejoice, Heaven Can Wait makes its TCM debut this Saturday at 6 pm EDT, part of the TCM Summer Under the Stars day dedicated to Charles Coburn.

To celebrate this event, the Siren has slightly spruced up a 2006 post about this movie and offers it here. The intervening years have only strengthened her conviction that Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait is the wisest commentary on marital happiness that she has ever seen.

Last weekend the Siren escaped, with her family and a dear friend, up the Hudson River to a country house. The local rental place had Heaven Can Wait (1943), a movie so delicious the Siren would eat it with a spoon if she could. It has probably been twenty years since she saw this one, and here it was, restored to dazzling beauty by the Criterion Collection. (The DVD does have a few oddly faded sequences; from Daryl Chin via DVDBeaver, here is a good, but depressing, explanation of why this is so.)

Amazing what Ernst Lubitsch could get from actors who seldom shone as bright elsewhere. Kay Francis gave the performance of her career in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny, so great in radio and TV, never equalled To Be Or Not to Be on screen. The immensely likable Don Ameche was a second-string star all his life, but in Heaven Can Wait you could swear you were watching one of the greatest light comic actors of all time. Gene Tierney, young and a bit tremulous as Ameche's great love, does fine work showing her character's gathering strength.

Arrayed around them are a group of ferociously funny character actors. Lubitsch probably didn't have to work all that hard to get brilliance from these pros, but Samson Raphaelson's script gives them so much to work with; even the child actors playing young Henry and his schoolgirl sweethearts are excellent.

There is Laird Cregar, the sinister detective in I Wake Up Screaming, here playing a Satan so sophisticated and well-dressed that the Siren's host asked, "is that Anton Walbrook?" Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) goes to Hell (and a very elegant Hell it is, too, decorated in what appears to be Deco's Last Gasp) and attempts to explain to His Excellency why he deserves eternal damnation. His Excellency, for his part, sits down to vet Henry, since he doesn't want the place getting all touristy. "Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is coming to Hell," he laments.

Charles Coburn plays Hugo Van Cleve, living vicariously through his grandson's peccadillos; and Allyn Joslyn is Cousin Albert, with looks and demeanor reminiscent of Ralph Reed.

Excellent exchange, mid-movie:

Albert: The family understands your humor, but it's a typical kind of New York humor.
Hugo: In other words, it's not for yokels.

We have Eugene Pallette as Tierney's Kansas City pa. The Siren hereby issues a big mea culpa for not mentioning Pallette in her post about voices. There is no one, absolutely no one with a voice like this actor's any more. If you put a double bass through a cement mixer, you might get the voice of Eugene Pallette. He and Marjorie Main have the Siren's favorite scene in the movie, a fierce dispute at the marital breakfast table over who gets to read the Katzenjammer Kids. The butler Jasper, forced to mediate between the warring funny-paper fans, was played by the great, pioneering actor Clarence Muse. Mercifully, he has no "humorous" dialect tics or cutesy gestures. Instead, he's just as funny as the two flashier actors at either end of the table: "I've got great news..."

What makes this movie as sophisticated and challenging as it was in 1943 is Lubitsch and Raphaelson's thrillingly adult view of marriage. It's not the Pecksniffian view of adultery rampaging through every editorial page circa 1998, but the wry, Continental take that says I have been faithful, in my fashion. Couples and the remnants of couples swirl through the movie, pursuing all sorts of marriages in all sorts of ways. Henry's grandfather Hugo (Coburn) was, we suspect, entirely faithful, and rather wishes he hadn't been. Henry's parents are loving but rather daffy, and not very aware of what their son is up to — in the Lubitsch/Raphaelson view, this is not at all a bad way to raise a child.

For proof, compare the lovable Henry to his perfect prig of a cousin, Albert, whose briefly glimpsed parents seem completely in tune with one another's stiffness and reserve. Later, Henry and wife Martha (Tierney) raise another child much as Henry was raised, and that son turns out all right, too. Martha, for her part, has homespun middle-American parents who barely speak to one another, and Martha is the most purely good character in the movie. So much for the sins of the fathers.

The question of infidelity, and where that sin ranks in the hierarchy, is treated so obliquely that not every modern viewer picks up on it. Infidelity, in a Lubitsch movie, barely registers on the sin-o-meter. The worst crime of all is to be a bore. But the sour old souls at the Breen Office would never, but never, have countenanced a movie that says philandering won't get you a permanent berth with His Excellency. So Henry's indiscretions are never spelled out. Lubitsch just implies them all over the place.

When Henry goes to retrieve his wife from her parent's cow-bedecked Kansas mansion, it's clear what he is trying to explain away, and why Martha has tired of his act. "Oh, Henry, I know your every move," she sighs. "I know your outraged indignation. I know the poor weeping little boy. I know the misunderstood, strong, silent man, the worn-out lion who is too proud to explain what happened in the jungle last night." The mere fact that Martha is back home tells you her discontent had been building for a while, since Kansas doesn't even get the respect accorded Hell. "I didn't want to be an old maid, not in Kansas," Tierney had wailed earlier, trying to explain why she'd gotten herself engaged to Albert the stuffed shirt.

Still, it's that same Albert who gets to articulate something pretty close to the movie's core idea: "Marriage isn't a series of thrills. Marriage is a peaceful, well-balanced adjustment of two right-thinking people." Responds Martha, uncharacteristically tart, "I'm afraid that's only too true." Yet she and Henry achieve that balance, by putting off any notion of heavenly perfection in a marriage.


Exiled in NJ said...

The color is so rich that people with gout should avoid watching this movie. My late wife and I saw it for the first time ten years ago and were enthralled so that now a tape rests firmly in the Tierney section of my bookcase.

Ah, but how did you like her hairdo as she aged? Hell might have been a kinder, gentler place, but someone must have escaped to give her that treatment. And no Rex to carry her off either!

'the worn-out lion explaining what happened in the jungle last night' jostled my brain and brought back the jungle Eleanor mentions to Henry II at the end of Lion In Winter.....not as graphically described in 1943, but sometimes I wonder if writers don't pick the bones of the past.

The Siren said...

Exiled, between that late-movie hairdo in HCW and the one in Whirlpool, I am wondering if Tierney's beauty inspired jealous rages in her hairdressers.

Gloria said...

I have laughed with many films, but in few I have roared with laughter as when Coburn says " take Martha, you keep Mabel".

I think Technicolor must the only colour photography that matched the timelessness of Black & White photography: anything else just seems to date badly, take most of the colour photography of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s as an example.

I've seen Laird Cregar in a couple of films and I regret that just being a fine actor wasn't enough for him: it had to be a thin good actor, and so we lost him. Sadly, this idea of his seemed to pre-date today's choice of a casting director, who seem to prefer wooden, but attractive non-actors to the real McCoy.

The Siren said...

I have been reading up on Cregar (just bought a copy of The Lodger off Ebay, cross your fingers that I actually get it!). Apparently, he wanted to expand into leading-man type roles. I was astonished to discover he was only 28 when he died; such a shame! You wish you could go back in time and point out that with rare exceptions, a character actor has a longer career span. It's funny, in HCW he doesn't look fat at all, he is quite elegant. There is a funny moment at the end where he is standing next to Don Ameche, and Lubitsch doesn't cheat the shot, so that the 6'3" Cregar absolutely TOWERS over Ameche.

Koneko said...

Hello my dear! I hope you feel better soon. I just wanted to tell you that I just rented "Where the Sidewalk Ends" and am watching it right now. HCW is next in the queue. I am on a total GT kick! ;-)

The Siren said...

thanks, Koneko dear! I still haven't watched "Sidewalk," though I have it. Mr. Campaspe is supposed to have a TV for us this week. Any time is a good time for a GT kick, but her beauty in HCW is just astounding. There were other actresses (usually redheads) called Technicolor Perfect but no one photographed in the process like Tierney.

Lance Mannion said...

Ok, one more for the Netflix queue.

Bravo, C.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

How's this for serendipity? I buy Heaven Can Wait, on sale from Best Buy, and then I stumble onto this post.

"It's the voodoo, I tells ya!"

David Stafford said...

Just saw Heaven Can Wait and I noticed that the screenwriters for Dan in Real Life lifted the bookstore sequence for its meet cute scene. In the latter film it's supposed to be the moment Carrell seals the deal with Binoche but it more accurately describes the dismal arc of romance since Lubitsch's day. The distance in wit, attitude and sophistication between the two films leads you to doubt Darwin.

barrylane said...

Heaven Can Wait (this one not the other film with that title) is a first class production that screams for a remastered Blu Disc. Re Rhonda Fleming, surely the most beautiful person in the world -- when I was a boy in the mid-fifties my local theatre ran Slightly Scarlet with While The City Sleeps. I went five times -- and not to see Vincent Price.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Great work, Siren. Love your mentioning Lubitsch's art deco vision of Hell.

The Siren said...

Barry, Ha! I love Rhonda Fleming. She's basically a supporting player with above-the-title looks, but how delightful she could be. She steals the show as the nympho in Spellbound, and to me she suggests more sex in her few scenes that Dali's whole sequence does. Great in Out of the Past, also great in Home Before Dark and I liked her even better than Dahl in Slightly Scarlet.

David E., if my Lubitsch piece pleased you I know it was successful. Thanks!

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks - this is a favorite film of mine. Lubitsch makes the most advanced filmmaking look easy!

David said...

I love this movie -- and I can't help but wonder what, if anything, Clarence Muse and Eugene Pallette found to talk about off camera.

Lemora said...

Oh thank you, thank you! I just saw "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) and what a delight! Even taking Gene Tierney's bizarre hairdo in her last scenes into account --sort of an attempt to wed early nineteen forties hair horns with a head-hugging marcel wave. This and the 1934 film, with adventuress Claudette Colbert and taxi driver Don Ameche --the title of which has escaped me-- are my two favorite Lubitsch movies. At least I think (I hope) the second one is a Lubitsch movie.

The Siren said...

Thank you Paul and David! David, I know Muse must have been polite, but when the cameras stopped turning I hope like Mame in the song, he gave Pallette such a cold shoulder that "for seven days they shoveled snow." (I adore Palllette, and Coburn, on camera. Off...)

Lemora, I think your cab driver movie is Midnight--not Lubitsch, but Mitchell Leisen. But completely delightful.

barrylane said...

Lemora --

The Ameche picture is called Midnight and it is 1939. Liesen directed.

Lemora said...

Thank you, Barrylane and Siren, for the clarification re "Midnight." From what I've read about Mitchell Leisen, his take on marriage would have been similar to that of Lubitsch. I also watched "Sundown" (1941) since I was on a Gene Tierney viewing roll. Completely different kind of movie, with Gene in her Exotic mode, and a terrific George Sanders.

Dave said...

I, too, adore Pallette, and always find it a shame he went so crazy in real life.

I find Muse fascinating. He's always dignified, intelligent, and sharp. I have to wonder what might have happened if other African-American actors had refused to conform to what the studios wanted from them.

joel65913 said...

Love everything about this movie. I remember the first time I watched it being skeptical based on the description but by the time it ended I was utterly charmed. The entire cast is so wonderful it's hard to pick a favorite but I'd have to say that if Don Ameche had failed to engage the whole movie would have flopped no matter how good the rest of the cast was.

So many of the cast have such distinctive voices beside Pallette, the fluttery tones of Spring Byington, Marjorie Main's booming honk, Coburn's wheezy and clipped stammer. There's really no one today who speaks like any of them. Language and enunciation have become so lazy and for the most part training so lax that those individual voices don't get heard. There are a few voices of today that come to mind, Kristen Chenoweth squeak or worse Roseanne's nasal whine, but the variety that use to exist isn't there anymore.

barrylane said...

Joel, Yes to all you have written -- especially about voices in current time.

Juanita's Journal said...

"Sadly, this idea of his seemed to pre-date today's choice of a casting director, who seem to prefer wooden, but attractive non-actors to the real McCoy."

There are many actors today whom I WOULD NOT describe as "wooden". I enjoy old movies just as much as the other fans. But there are a large number of recent movies that I love just as much. I'm sorry, but I cannot agree with the mindset that the movies of Old Hollywood are better than the recent ones. I've seen my share of terrible or mediocre movies from all eras.Villa Pershi

Untouched Takeaway said...

I also made a point to watch HCW this weekend - after reading about it here.

Enjoyed it immensely, and a big "bwah!" to David and the Pallette/Muse comment.


Lemora said...

Dear Siren: I don't know if or when you'll see this comment, but I just re-visited Heaven Can Wait and your post about it. This post originally led me to the movie in 2013. In another post, you drew my attention to Florence Bates, the inimitable character actress of Rebecca fame. Her biography is one of the most fascinating I have ever read. I have just re-read your post here about HCW and all the comments, and no one mentions that the old lady who shows up in Hell, insisting there has been a mistake, is played by an uncredited Bates.