Old Hollywood has its pitfalls, but it sure made some excellent, even downright delightful films. Case in point, Heaven Can Wait, from director Ernst Lubitsch (Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, To Be Or Not To Be).
Lubitsch was born in 1892 and began making films in the early 1900s. He worked with movie stars from Hollywood's Golden Age, like Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, Burgess Meredith, Melvyn Douglas, and many more.
Starring a young Don Ameche (Mortimer in Trading Places!) as playboy Henry Van Cleve and the extraordinarily beautiful Gene Tierney, the film opens with Van Cleve meeting with Satan, who has a large basement office with fake painted books on the walls (Hell indeed). Before Van Cleve can be admitted to Hell, he must recount his life in the above world. Life on Madison Avenue was pretty good for the Van Cleeves, and a story like this is far more about the journey than the destination.
He goes through the story of his entire life, from infancy to death bed, but his main story is about his relationship with his wife Martha (Tierney). Like every couple, they have their ups and downs. One of the reasons I love old films is that the writing is so good, and Heaven Can Wait is no exception. (There's an interesting old showcase on screenwriter Samson Raphaelson as a special feature.) Admittedly, I find romantic comedies to be excruciating on the whole, but again, here, the writing is great, and I found myself invested in the characters' journeys, even if the main character isn't particularly likeable.
For a film from 1943, it looks amazing in this 4K digital restoration. As always, Criterion has done a terrific job in cleaning the film up; it was rare that I noticed film grain. It exists, of course, but it's not very noticeable save for certain shots, and the sound is quite flawless.
Special features on discs like this release can be quite interesting; in a discussion between critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (previously released in 2005), they discuss why Heaven Can Wait did not do well at the box office. The intended audience was still living through the thick of World War II, and they wanted more realism in their comedies, closer to the middle class to which most filmgoers belonged.
Apparently, very light, comedic films about rich people who didn't work weren't what people were into back then, no less a film centered on a philandering rich man who didn't work. (I mean, if someone was going to cheat on someone who was as breathtaking as Gene Tierney, man, you've got issues.) Even so, Heaven Can Wait garnered three Oscar nominations -- Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography for Lubitsch's first Technicolor film.
At the end of the film itself, there's a small advertisement stating that there are war bonds for sale in the theatre! What a time capsule.
You can preorder (out on August 21) the Heaven Can Wait Blu-ray from Criterion here.
Cover by Caitlin Kuhwald