I am far behind on my movie reviews, which happened a lot a few years ago, but which I had been rather disciplined about since about 2015. The lockdowns knocked that into a cocked hat, somehow—and as someone who personally came through the ordeal largely better off than I went into them, I am still discovering the ways the incipient police state messed with my head—and I sit here wondering how best to celebrate the season.
Last Thanksgiving, I talked about that most thankful of movies, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and the year before that I covered Friendly Persuasion (1956). Prior to that I wasn’t theming around holidays. I am grateful, really, that I have so many options to choose from this year, even if it seems like, some weeks, with 40 titles playing, there isn’t one worth seeing. So I looked through the backlkog: The Manchurian Candidate, a classic that is well worth discussing, or The Exterminating Angel—Luis Bunuel’s surrealist story about a dinner party no one can leave. I also just saw Only In Theaters, which is a decent documentary on the Laemmle theater chain in Los Angeles that barely made it to the pandemic and was dealt blow after blow with the unending, uncertain lockdowns—which seem to provoke exactly no reflection on the part of the owner as to whether any of it was necessary. (And it is no surprise to me that the indie movie box office was down enough in 2019 to threaten the chain’s viability, but I’ll save that for a dedicated review.)
But while gratitude plays a big part in that movie, it’s not really the tone I want to set for the week, and so I went to the well of possibly my favorite director, Ernst Lubitsch, and possibly my favorite film Heaven Can Wait.
Based on a play called “Birthdays”, and bearing no relation to the play “Heaven Can Wait” (which served as the basis for 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan as well as the 1978 Warren Beatty Heaven Can Wait), Lubitsch’s film is a series of vignettes centering around one Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a spoiled rich kid at the turn of the century who grows into an equally spoiled man who, on dying, decides he might as well go straight to Hell since he certainly won’t be welcome in heaven.
You often have heard me say “they couldn’t make this today”—at least until I retired that phrase—but the interesting thing about this movie is that the moorings that make it work simply don’t exist any more. Sort of like remakes of Mildred Pierce or The Women, where the tensions on which the drama is based no longer exist, the problem with a modern Heaven Can Wait would be that today we’re all Henry Van Cleve (sans the charm, as I noted here in this review of While We’re Young).
The vignettes the movie is centered around are all charming in their own right: As a baby, Henry’s nurse is a two-faced canoodler, doting on him in front of his parents and neglecting him to make out with her policeman boyfriend. As a boy, his weakness for (future) women leads him to give away both his beetles to a girl in exchange for being allowed to walk her home. As a teen, he kisses a girl, and is beside himself with the thought that now he must marry her—until an enterprising French maid/tutor explains that, in 1887, it isn’t necessary to marry a girl just because you kiss her.
The French maid presumably teaches him a lot of things, and his life of dissolution begins in earnest. He embarrasses his hard-working, wealthy-but-still-solidly-middle-class family with his cavorting with “musical-comedy girls”. He shows no interest in doing anything of productive value.
And one day he meets Martha Strabel (top-billed Gene Tierney).
This is over a half-an-hour into the movie! But it’s love at first sight and Henry professes—in complete earnestness—how his love for this girl he’s seen once has cured him of all his wicked ways. He’d do anything for her. He idealizes her above all else in the world.
Martha has the choice between marrying Albert, respectably, staying in Kansas as a 23-year-old spinster (because her parents cannot agree on anything, including acceptable suitors for her), or scandalously marrying Henry. Albert loves her, insofar as he’s capable of such things, but he’s so convinced of his own correctness in all matters that a preview of her life with him—where he corrects her for sneezing inopportunely (during Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s coloratura, no less)—presents a picture of dull misery, even if secure in certain ways.
Albert’s correction drives her literally into Henry’s arms, where it’s quite clear that the two make each other as happy as they’ve ever been. But Henry can’t live up to his own ideals, and after ten years of employing the same manipulative tactics that worked so well on others in his life, Martha leaves him. (This could be analyzed from an Aristotelean perspective, but I’ll spare you.)
I often forget this part, but when Henry goes to retrieve her, he actually does reform. It’s a little vague as to whether or not he runs the Van Cleve enterprises, and certain that he never pursues it as much as he pursued showgirls—and it’s also a little vague how much of his “settling down” is due to simply aging—and this is the thing about Lubitsch. Explaining him is like trying to explain a joke. Or maybe more like trying to explain a haiku.
Martha understands Henry and loves him and doesn’t regret her life choices for an instant, even when she’s left him. She won’t speak a bad word about Henry to others and won’t have anything bad said about him in her presence. When Henry says “if I hadn’t met you I’d hate to think where I’d be right now,” she replies sweetly, “probably outside some stage door, or even inside the dressing room, and having a wonderful time.” And while that’s true, it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s much happier with Martha.
Maybe this is why we root for him. And maybe because, come Judgment Day, he’s not presenting himself at the Pearly Gates trying to charm his way in. He recounts his own life unflinchingly, but not lugubriously or dismissively, because he feels the weight of his own sins. His redemption, such as it is, comes in an act of confession—to the Devil (a pitch-perfect performance by Laird Creger, right before he was lost to a Hollywood weight-loss surgery fiasco).
It has, of course, great performances from a fun and interesting supporting cast. In particular, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette as the Kansas pig-farmers, the Strabels, who act out their aggressions on each other by reading spoilers from the comic strips at the breakfast table. Charles Coburn as Grandpa. Spring Byington and Louis Calhern as Henry’s stiff, befuddled, and over-indulgent parents (this is not a trope invented by the Baby Boomers). Allyn Joslyn as Henry’s morally-upright, apple-polisher cousin. Dr. Clarence Muse (Jasper, the Butler) who probably portrayed porters more than anyone in Hollywood history. (He was a fan of “Amos & Andy” because it showed black people in white collar jobs.)
They’re all actors who, if you’ve seen any Golden Age movies, or even a lot of ’50s/’60s TV shows, you recognize instantly, and Lubitsch characteristically imbues them with their own drives, making the world seem alive. There are sometimes villains in his movies: Bela Lugosi as the Soviet commissar in Ninotchka or Mr. Matuschek’s (unseen) wife and his treacherous employee in Shop Around The Corner, but there is no real bad guy here—just people with conflicting sensibilities.
If we’re all being judged for our sins, it may well be that we are our own harshest critics, and the people who love us are more forgiving than we are (than perhaps we feel we deserve, even).
And that’s something to be thankful for.