Monday, August 23, 2010

Heaven Can Wait

Heaven Can Wait, 1943
Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Hey, color! Woo! Well, anyway...this is the first Lubitsch film I have ever seen, and while not being completely up my alley, this is about as good as a Hollywood comedy (especially from the 40s) can get. The way the film plays out is very elliptical, not only with music queues and the progress of the narrative (from a death to a death), but also the way Lubitsch uses windows and doors over and over again to show and not show. It's really interesting stuff, considering the amount of thought that goes into Hollywood film nowadays, at least in how a film in constructed.

The story concerns Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a man who has just arrived in Hell after figuring that he had been too bad in life to be allowed into Heaven, so he didn't even try. Satan has to review his file first, and they go over the course of his life. Henry is a scoundrel, from his earliest days where he gets drunk with his family's French maid (Signe Hasso), and then to when he elopes with his cousin's finacee (Gene Tierney) at their engagement party after winning her heart. Through all of it, you understand that Henry, who comes from money, has developed into an idle man, a loafer who lives off of his family's money and who is indulged by them. He is not a real hero in any sense of the word, which is probably why this film didn't do so well during the height of WWII.

The presence of time is always present as well, and as Henry recounts his life, it slips by rather quickly and sadly, and his "misdemeanors" add up to a life of petty pleasures without much regard for others. This is why he goes "down." The sadness that builds up towards the end while maintaining the humor walks a thin line the most films can't pull off, but is reminiscent of Ozu in some fashions (he was a big fan of Lubitsch). Henry's womanizing ways also continue well past his marriage, even to the point in his 50s where he propositions a showgirl who happens to be seeing his son without his knowing. It's not like you're rooting for him in anyway to do anything in particular, but waiting for his next indiscretion to take place is oddly satisfying in a I'm- watching-something-naughty way.

This also kind of reminded me of Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings (1939) in the ensemble comedy/deeper level going on department, and the two films have a light structure that makes it all work. They are similar directors as well; Lubitsch’s tight cutting means he never allows his characters to think or ponder on a situation, to reflect on moral positions (most of which are very gray), or to assess their surroundings. Hawks’ characters are too busy doing something for the luxury of self-reflection, while Lubitsch’s characters are too busy doing nothing. Some of the characters here are a little to one dimensional (like all of the parents) but my favorite supporting cast member has to be Grandpa (Charles Coburn) who is the Van Cleve who made all of the family's money and tends to act as a voice of reason throughout, and is Henry's biggest ally. Henry is a layabout, but you can sense in Grandpa that that is the life he had always wanted to live, and he even says later that Henry is the "only Van Cleve that I ever cared about." When they go to get back Henry's wife after she leaves (because of one his indiscretions) Grandpa comes along and is hilarious. While he's bouncing around the house that they've invaded, he tells one of the house servant giddily, "I've always wanted to runaway with a girl!" I can't see anyone not having a smile on their face. I just convinced myself while writing this that it is better than I first thought. Now I'm certain more Lubitsch will occur.

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