Thursday, July 13, 2006

Recycled Thoughts on Heaven Can Wait

I recently re-watched the Ernst Lubitsch film Heaven Can Wait, the last completed film he did with his regular writer Samson Raphaelson, and his only film in colour. I wanted to write something about it, but I remembered I'd already said most of what I wanted to say about Heaven Can Wait in a message-board post a while back. So I adapted it into a blog post, heedless of all ethical rules about self-plagiarism.

The thing about Heaven Can Wait is that it can leave audiences wondering what the point of it was. And I think, based on some of the reviews, that people are still split over this. Lubitsch said he was proud of Heaven Can Wait because he had managed to make a two-hour movie with no real plot, about the life of an unexceptional man. But he didn't let on why he thought Henry Van Cleve's story was worth telling, and sometimes in watching the movie, you have to wonder if it really was worth telling: what's the point of spending two hours with a man who has a good life, relatively little conflict, and isn't even all that likable?

Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is basically a man who lives a basically useless life and has everything handed to him; the only serious crisis in his life, when his wife Martha (Gene Tierney) leaves him, is solved without his having to change his ways or do much of anything except just be the endlessly forgivable man-child he is. Instead Martha just comes to the conclusion that Henry's philandering and lying are like the actions of a little boy, something acceptable and even cute: "When he comes to you with his little stories, and you know they're just little stories, but he wants you to believe them so badly that you wish you could." (She's supposedly talking about her son, but she's really talking about Henry.) Don Ameche, the star of the film, himself said that Henry is a selfish man who led a totally selfish life, and that the movie is about the idea that a totally selfish man could still be worthy of getting into heaven.

The movie doesn't really try to "redeem" him to get him into heaven, the way another movie on a similar subject might do. He lives his life pretty consistently for himself, stops philandering only when he's too old and chubby to attract young women, and dies thinking about women and liquor. The movie doesn't ask us to see him as a man who converts or has an epiphany; it asks us to see his life as a basically good life even though it was essentially useless. That can be difficult to swallow, because we do tend to expect selfish characters to redeem themselves somehow at some specific moment, instead of being celebrated.

Now, of course, the movie shows that even though Henry mostly thinks of himself, he brings pleasure to others: his grandfather, Martha (who has more fun with wandering Henry than she ever could have had with faithful Albert), "several young ladies," even Satan (Laird Cregar), who enjoys listening to Henry's exploits. Henry's jealousy of Martha in their last scene together is an example of this: it's outrageously hypocritical of Henry to be acting the jealous husband with Martha, but it does make her happy to know that he still finds her attractive enough to be jealous of her. Whereas the characters who are conventionally moral, like Albert and Mr. Van Cleve, never bring much pleasure to anyone, including themselves.

You could argue that Heaven Can Wait is Lubitsch's Sullivan's Travels, his self-defence for making comedies (and particularly for making comedies in a time when, as Satan says, "The whole world is coming to hell"): bringing pleasure is its own justification and ultimately helps more people than conventionally worthy goals.


Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I don't share your enthusiasm for Lubitsch, Brother Jaime, but I will say that of all his films Heaven Can Wait (1943) is probably my favorite. Well, that and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Great post.

Jenny Lerew said...

Agree--great dissection.