(No, not the 1978 Warren Beatty fantasy, the 1943 romantic comedy.)
I’m a big fan of the few classic American films the Criterion Collection has covered. I’ve enjoyed learning more about The Lady Eve (a demented tale of love, cons, and mistaken identity) and My Man Godfrey (a class comedy where William Powell transforms a screwy rich family during the Depression), films I already knew. One of my favorite of their releases is Trouble in Paradise (also about con artists, but exploring the conflict between work, partnership, and love), which introduced me to the wonderful work of Ernst Lubitsch. (It also stars my forgotten fave Kay Francis as the rich woman Herbert Marshall wishes to steal from but finds himself mesmerized by.)
Lubitsch is responsible for some of my favorite comedies, including Ninotchka, written by Billy Wilder, where Melvyn Douglas loosens up the Russian Greta Garbo, and The Shop Around the Corner, where pen pals Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan fall in love while working together and hating each other. His work is often set in European cities, providing an air of urban chic and exotic worldliness. He even successfully made the Nazis funny, while satirizing performers’ pretension, with To Be or Not to Be. Perhaps the least-known today, both of Lubitsch films and Criterion DVDs, is Heaven Can Wait.
It’s the story of a wannabe Casanova, an upper-class layabout who frequented the theater and its backstage showgirls, who has recently died. He descends to hell, where he recaps his life of sin to Satan. It wasn’t a matter of major crimes, as he puts it, but that “my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor.” Even though he was married to a beautiful, loving woman (the luminous Gene Tierney, who does a lovely job of showing steel under silk), he couldn’t stop skirt-chasing. More poignant, though, is the portrayal of how he refuses to grow up even as he grows older.
Now, the deceased is played by Don Ameche, who may seem like an odd choice. I’d only known him from Trading Places, when I was younger, until I saw Midnight, where he holds his own against Claudette Colbert as the determined taxi driver who woos her away from barons. Here, he’s a cad, but a slightly charming one, and his less prominent screen persona makes it more universal a story. His character isn’t excessively handsome or eye-catching, which gives his quest to recapture the highs of falling love a touch more pathos, especially as time passes.
Like so many Lubitsch movies, this film is a very non-traditional take on a love story, but with real feeling underneath. Unlike many of his other works, which feature single people, this film involves generations of family, and part of the subtle comedy is noticing how they and their interactions change over time, as the movie covers Ameche’s character’s life. The time period, from 1870-1940, may seem impossibly remote to us today, but the human nature shown is universal. And very funny. Watch for the details, such as the changing furniture, as time passes on-screen. (This is also one of the few/only? Lubitsch films available in Technicolor. Many of his classics are black and white.)
The supporting cast is universally outstanding. Charles Coburn is the winking grandpa, not as bound by society or propriety as his son’s generation. Ameche’s parents are Spring Byington and Louis Calhern — if you don’t recognize the names, if you watch 40s films, you’ll still know the faces. Tierney’s are Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette, with the bulldog face and frog voice. Sadly, the impressive Laird Cregar, who played the devil, died only a year later in his early 30s, due to complications from a crash diet.
The DVD extras here include the original trailer and promotional stills, a 30-minute 1982 PBS documentary by Bill Moyers on screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (who also worked with Lubitsch on The Shop Around the Corner, The Merry Widow, and Trouble in Paradise, the last of which features strongly in this show), and a 1977 audio recording of Raphaelson and Richard Corliss discussing the film. There’s also a lovely 25-minute discussion (from 2005) about the movie between film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris. He saw it when it was originally released in 1943, and he talks about the difference in culture then and now.
I would love to see a Criterion treatment of Lubitsch’s Design for Living, in which the glorious Miriam Hopkins gets involved with playwright Fredric March and painter Gary Cooper, as the triad tries to figure out who’s going to date whom. It’s only available now as part of a Gary Cooper collection, which is the wrong way to package it. Those looking for Cooper’s tough-guy films don’t know what to make of this frothy comedy with sardonic underpinnings, and he’s considered the weakest of the four main characters. (Edward Everett Horton is yet another of Hopkins’ suitors.) Instead, it needs to be considered as yet another example of “The Lubitsch Touch”, in which the sexy, funny bits are gracefully implied instead of thrown in your face. I recommend all of his films for those with a more sophisticated palate when it comes to adult interactions.