What if you could choose whether or not you belong in heaven or hell and had to interview either above or below for the opportunity of the lodgings? A New York playboy who loves chorus girls as much as he does avoiding work chooses hell without reservations for a string of life long misdemeanors–literally, which gives him the opportunity to share his life story with the figure he politely calls His Excellency.
Heaven Can Wait boasts ‘The Lubitsch Touch,” making the playful roaming eye of Henry Van Cleve seem absolutely reasonable for his character and the understandable nature of the devil himself quite logical in the world he spun. The film is a feast for the viewer in technicolor, gorgeous sets, and period settings. Everything feels realistic, but at the same time with the narration of Henry Van Cleve you’re transported to another place and time. A place that’s a little simpler, a little more sincere, and often more colorful than our everyday mundane world.
Don Ameche plays the man who is sure of his place, Henry Van Cleve. This is by far one of Don Ameche’s most endearing film roles. Through his narration, the film takes us through his life from infancy to death allowing us to see the relationships he had with the women in his life as well as that of his grandfather and son. Like His Excellency, Henry Van Cleve doesn’t seem to have many redeeming qualities except for his charm, but he’s lovable because of the things he does and the high regard he has for people even if he doesn’t always do the right thing.
Henry’s personality is contrasted with that of his cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). Cousin Albert can do nothing wrong. He plays by the book, finds and becomes engaged to the girl of Henry’s dreams, and is a genuine stuffed-shirt tattle tale. It drives home the issue of how one should live their life–conform as Albert was perfectly comfortable with doing often at the expense of others or make the most life trying to keep those who love you happy. And by bringing Strable family into the Van Cleve family, Heaven Can Wait delves into how one makes their fortune. Martha Strable (Gene Tierney) is considered a good match for Albert by his parents because she comes from a well-made respectable family. His grandfather
(Charles Coburn), on the other hand, can’t help but pick on the Kansas-based in-laws. Henry changes everything when he falls in love with Martha Strable caring little about where her family came from. The contrast makes for many amusing scenes in the film with Grandfather Van Cleve always choosing to help Henry over Albert.
Laird Cregar does a brilliant job as the devilish lord of the underworld. He’s lovable. He truly is. And that smile and the flash of his eyes seal the deal. He is a devil. It’s extremely unfortunate that his career was cut short by his untimely death, because he really could have mastered many more character roles.
And of course there is Gene Tierney, the lovely Martha (Strable) Van Cleve, the girl Henry takes away from his cousin. Tierney is particularly strong in her portrayal of the later years of their marriage. She plays a lovely, wistful mature old woman for her 22 years of life. Her film career picked up fairly quickly, starting in 1940 when she was fresh off Broadway.
Other stand out performances came from Spring Byington as Henry’s mother and Mr. and Mrs. Strable played by Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main. Spring nearly steals every scene, but it’s Main and Pallette who quickly gain validity to their characters over a long dining table, a bit of silent treatment, and curiosity about how the hero of a comic manages to get out of a barrel. It’s brilliantly done. You see within a few seconds exactly how the relationship works–and not only do you see the dysfunction, you see the dysfunction as advertised by Martha. It says so much about how wealth may buy an extraordinarily long dinner table and a butler, but it won’t buy you peace of mind.
A classic, an essential, Heaven Can Wait is a grand film with lovable characters, beautiful backdrops, and a lot of heart. A must watch for any film fan.