May 28, 2016

Seattle International Film Festival 2016: Technicolor Gene Tierney in Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Saturday at the Egyptian Theater, watching Lubitsch on the big screen, turning into an icicle. It really happened.

As we waited in line for a SIFF screening of Heaven Can Wait (1943), we were warned by a festival employee that the air conditioning in the Egyptian had been stuck on all night, and it was a bit chilly inside. However, he also told us that complimentary tea and coffee were available to help ward off the cold. A classy move.

The lady behind me was loaded up with a pillow and blanket, all ready to settle in for five hours of films, so she at least came prepared. She told me that getting ready for a long day at SIFF felt like packing for a camping trip. That's a good comparison, because both things have the same effect on your back. It actually didn't end up being much colder than usual.

Though I've seen and essentially enjoyed it a few times over the years, Heaven Can Wait has always been a problematic movie for me. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and written by the filmmaker's frequent screenwriter Sam Raphaelson, it has the sexy sparkle and sharp wit of his best films, though not quite as much as his pre-code romps. It also has a fantastic supporting cast, with Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, Marjorie Main and Gene Tierney doing some of their best work. My problem, aside from this being a post-code Lubitsch is that I don't like star Don Ameche and I like his character here even less.

The whole concept of this comedy is that Ameche's character, Henry Van Cleve is an imperfect person, but still worthy of entry into heaven. By the end of this screening, I think there were some audience members who still didn't believe he was ready for the pearly gates. I certainly wondered what he had done to redeem himself. Compounding the problem is that Ameche has always struck me as this kind of person in other movies as well: some cad who has it coming to him.

So my approach to this film is to treat Ameche like a talking movie audience member who won't be shushed, I feel tense about him, but I don't let him ruin things for me.

Heaven Can Wait follows Henry from babyhood to death. From the beginning he charms the ladies, and his flirtations with and mistreatment of them are the central pursuit of his life. As a baby his doting mother (Spring Byington) and grandmother (Clara Blandick) fight over him as he gazes up from the cradle. In the pre-teen years, he buys female attention with boxes of beetles. As a teen, he charms his mother's French maid (Signe Hasso) and gets drunk with her in a nightclub.

By the time Henry reaches adulthood, he has advanced to stealing his uptight cousin's (Allyn Joslyn) fiancée, Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney). It shouldn't come as a surprise, but is nevertheless disappointing that he isn't faithful to Martha. Never mind whether or not he should get into heaven, the dear lady should have kicked him to the curb. To make matters worse, when she enters the senior years, she is stuck with a hairdo that looks like an animal trying to eat her head. Even Gene Tierney isn't beautiful enough to overcome that, though she comes close.

With a man like that in the lead, the supporting cast must provide compensation, and it does. Charles Coburn is Henry's mischievous grandfather, and ironically is one of the most loveable characters, despite the fact that he must have been just as much of a cad as his grandson in his day. Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main play their familiar types with gusto as Martha's strict, but warm-hearted parents. I love Gene Tierney, and would watch her in anything, but I have to admit I didn't previously give her enough credit for her comedy chops in this movie. While she is often stuck in the unrewarding disapproving wife role, she has some comic exchanges that she handles with great skill.

I also love that continuing Lubitsch/Raphaelson tradition of putting the spotlight on the servants. It makes sense to focus some attention on the help; imagine the things they have seen and the talent it must take to manage their employers. In this case there are two fascinating characters: the Van Cleve's butler Fogdell, who reacts with subtle amusement and occasional delight to the dramas of the family and the very amusing Clarence Muse as Jasper, the Strabel's patient and diplomatic servant, who clearly understands the delicate nature of his employees' marriage.

In his small part as the Devil, Laird Cregar deserves special mention. He plays the evil delight of his character perfectly; wide-eyed with amusement from learning all the dirt about his potential residents. Cregar even has the right look for the role: sort of handsome, sort of repellant and definitely dangerous looking.

As much as I dislike Ameche, all these characters, and the sharp wit of the script kept me grinning. You know you've been watching a Lubitsch when your face is sore, but you don't remember any belly laughs. This is a sly sort of humor that gets under your skin.

The film was a digital presentation of a new restoration by the 20th Century Fox, the Academy Film Archive, and The Film Foundation. While I found it beautiful overall, I was especially impressed by how vivid the colors were in the restored version. It's already such a brightly colored film, and in this presentation all those reds and blues really popped. There's also few leading ladies who can make a movie audience collectively hold its breath during a close-up like Gene Tierney does. She was made for Technicolor.


  1. Literally exactly how I feel about everything about this movie. Perfect review.

    "So my approach to this film is to treat Ameche like a talking movie audience member who won't be shushed, I feel tense about him, but I don't let him ruin things for me."

    I will not stop laughing.

  2. Glad you agree! There's so much to love about this movie. I'm not going to let one dude, even if he's the star, ruin it for me.