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.
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.