"As Henry Van Cleve's soul passed over The Great Divide, he realized that it was extremely unlikely that his next stop could be Heaven. And so, philosophically, he presented himself where innumerable people had so often told him to go."
Henry (Don Ameche) is greeted courteously by His Excellency (Laird Cregar). "I presume your funeral was satisfactory?" the devil asks. "Well...there was a lot of crying," Henry says, "so I believe everybody had a good time." His Excellency explains that while he will consider Henry's request, there must be good reasons to avoid going Up There. "If you meet our requirements, we'll be only too glad to accommodate you. Would you be kind enough to mention, for instance, some outstanding crime you've committed " "Crime...crime...I'm afraid I can't think of any," Henry says. "But I can safely say my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor."
Heaven Can Wait is the witty, nostalgic, gentle and surprisingly thoughtful tale of Henry Van Cleve, philanderer, wealthy lay-about and a man far from noble. Under Ernst Lubitsch's direction and with Samson Raphaelson's screenplay, Heaven Can Wait is, as critic Andrew Sarris says, "a hidden masterpiece."
His Excellency is intrigued and asks Henry to tell him his story. Henry believes that he can do this only through the women in his life, and, in one linear flashback, he does, starting as a babe in a bassinet. Henry loves women, he loves the pursuit, he loves the pleasures of the chase, the theater, the champagne, the supper clubs. He's spoiled, he's optimistic, he's endlessly inventive in finding ways out of being discovered. He may be innocently selfish, but it's in an almost childlike way. "Oh, Henry," his wife, Martha (Gene Tierney), says to him after being exasperated once too often, "I know your every move. 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."
Henry had eloped with Martha the day he met her, under the nose of her fiance, his cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn), a straight-laced lawyer who believes "marriage isn't a series of thrills. Marriage is a peaceful, well-balanced adjustment of two right-thinking people." Henry loves Martha deeply, but can't resist a beautiful face or a well-turned leg. Even as a widower, with a grown son, his old habits remain a part of his character. Yet he is so likeable and charming, Henry Van Cleve rarely hurts anyone.
After listening to Henry's story and despite all of Henry's tales of waywardness, His Excellency sends him on his way...but in an elevator going up, not down. He tells Henry, you'll find many people up there who love you and have been waiting for you. They will intercede for you...because despite everything you made people very happy.
This is a delightful movie that must have seemed either a relief or irrelevant to it's time. It was made in 1943 and was popular, yet it ostensibly is about nothing much at all. The setting is the 1870's through the start of the 1940's. There is no reference to any outside forces in Henry's life, no World War I, no Great Depression, no rise of fascism, no moral messages. Yet as the movie goes on we meet characters we come to either find amusing or to like, or both, and they disappear from the screen. Their time has passed and, out of sight, they've died while Henry's story continues. I was left, almost without realizing it, feeling optimistic and a little sad. Life does pass us by, and it's best savored by enjoying life without damaging others.
Among these characters are Henry's grandfather (Charles Coburn), irascible and secretly (and not so secretly) envious of Henry's outlook on life; Henry's father and mother, played by Louis Calhern and Spring Byington, obliviously stern and clueless and loving and clueless, respectively; and Mabel's parents from Kansas, played by Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main, who have a great Sunday breakfast scene battling over the comic pages while their butler is the intermediary. Laird Cregar, only 29 when he made this movie and dead little more than a year later, brings great, amused authority to the role of His Excellency. Gene Tierney with her overbite was never more luscious. She did a skilled job as Mabel, loving Henry, understanding of his ways but only willing up to a point to be tolerant. The movie, however, is Don Ameche's. He might have been a bland actor, but he is just about perfect as Henry Van Cleve, well-intentioned, charming, constantly tempted and often frustrated.
The movie seems to me to be just about a perfect collaboration between director Lubitsch and writer Raphaelson. They had collaborated earlier on two other great movies, the incomparable Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner. Trouble in Paradise has one of the most amusing screenplays you can find, and Lubitsch brought to it all the urbanity and style he was known for. If you could choose only one Lubitsch movie to own, I'd unhesitatingly say to make it Trouble in Paradise. But I think Heaven Can Wait would be second choice.
The Criterion DVD features a sumptuous picture transfer with rich color. The extras include a discussion of the film by movie critics Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell and an interview with Raphaelson by Bill Moyers. The case has an informative brochure with an essay about Lubitsch and the film.