Hi there, it’s Burl here to review an old Technicolor classic, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait! I thought it might be a sort of American version of that great Archers film A Matter of Life and Death, but it’s not – it’s more of an excuse to tell a story about a man’s life and his obsession with aging, with bookending segments set in, of all places, an antechamber to hell!
Don Ameche is the star – ha ha, you probably remember him from Cocoon! Or was he the old lady in Driving Miss Daisy? Anyway, here he plays Henry Van Cleve, of the New York Van Cleves, a septuagenarian boulevardier who dies and strolls down to H-E-double hockeysticks because that’s where he figures he belongs after a life of cadding about! Well, Old Scratch himself is there, or possibly it’s his secretary (whoever it is, he’s referred to as His Excellency), and he’s a very polite and nice individual who doubts that Henry really belongs in the Great Below. So he listens to Henry’s life story, which we see played out through the movie’s 112 minute running time – a lot longer than most movies of the day, and certainly longer than most other Lubitsch movies!
Turns out Henry’s not such a bad guy! We see very little of his caddish behavior, but we hear about some of it and see the effect on his family, mostly his wife Martha, who is played by Gene Tierney, and who packs up and leaves him at one point to return to her Midwest meat-baron parents, who hate each other and who are played by Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main!
That’s one of the best things about this movie, the wonderful character actors who fill the supporting roles! Besides Pallette, who I’m sure you remember fondly from My Man Godfrey, and Main, who was Ma Kettle of course, you get Louis Calhern as Henry’s dad, Spring Byington as his mom, and the awesome Charles Coburn as his feisty old grandpa, one of the best characters in the whole movie! And Laird Cregar, who died shortly after this movie when he was still in his early 30s, is great as His Excellency – what a magnificent voice he had, and if only he’d been able to keep acting, we’d have had some dandy performances through the 1950s and maybe right into the Nineties, who knows!
The other great things about this movie include the Technicolor photography by Edward Cronjager, which is magnificent, and the sets and costumes, and the excellent aging makeup! If that website that did a video about terrible aging makeup ever did one on great aging makeup, they should sure include this movie! (Though, ha ha, since we know what an old Ameche looks like, I can’t say they pulled it off with complete accuracy; but they were makeup artists, not Nostrodamuses after all!)
Still, this does have its faults! It’s too long, a little shapeless and, aside from a few moments here and there, and especially one moment involving a book right near the end, doesn’t really have the emotional impact you might expect from a life-story movie! It’s not Lubitsch’s best work, that’s for sure – it’s no Design For Living, anyway – but it still has lots of clever and hilarious little aspects to it! It might not quite have The Lubitsch Touch, but I would say he must have at least breathed heavily on it! I give it three antechambers to hell!