Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Samson Raphaelson, from a play by Lazlo Bus-Fekete
Starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Marjorie Main, Eugene Pallette, Allyn Joslin, Louis Calhern
The 1940s were a time when a particular type of fantasy showed up in films: movies about ghosts and the afterlife. Presumably, this was a reaction to a time when friends and family were dying in the war, and they often showed people moving on to a happier place. Heaven Can Wait is one example of the genre, and one with the famous light touch of Ernst Lubitsch.
It starts out with Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) showing in the office of His Excellency (Laird Cregar) after his death. His Excellency is the urbane master of Hell, and asks Van Cleve – who is fully expecting his fate – to explain why he expects to go to eternal suffering. And so we see Van Cleve’s life.
From the beginning, he was a flirt, chasing and kissing girls as he got older in a way that was scandalous in the 1880s, where the film is taking place.* As he came of age, he created consternation with his staid family (except for his grandfather Hugo (Charles Coburn)). That’s when he found the love of his life, Martha (Gene Tierney), attracted to her immediately when he heard her lying to her mother. But he never was able to tame his wandering eye.**
The movie is a delight, filled with gentle humor based on its characters. Charles Coburn, as usual, is delightfully funny, and the cast of Hollywood actors include such dependable delights as Eugene Pallette, Spring Byington, and Majorie Main.
Laird Cregar is especially good as His Excellency, the type of urbane devil figure you see often but rarely surpassed. Cregar was one of the great losses of 40s film, an actor who always impressed (usually as a villain). Alas, he died at age 31. Cregar was self-conscious about his weight (he was well over 300 pounds) and his attempt to diet (including amphetamines) led to complications and death by heart attack at age 31.
The movie was a success when it first came out, but, like most films of the era, it was slowly forgotten. It didn’t help that Warren Beatty used the title for a different film.*** But the film remains as delightful today as it was when it was released.
*Another small trend of the era was a slightly more openness toward nonmarital sex. While the Hayes code prohibited it, directors found ways to hint at it or find ways to rationalize it (see Miracle of Morgan’s Creek)
**Of course, even with the looser morals of the 40s, they look quaintly innocent today.
***A remake of a film from the 40s, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which was based on a play called . . . yup, Heaven Can Wait.