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The Criterion Collection presents

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

"Mother, I don't think I'll ever find this girl, but if I did, then all your troubles would be over. If she didn't want me to gamble, I wouldn't look at another card. I'd stay home every night. Mother, I might even go to work."- Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche)

Stars: Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn
Other Stars: Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette, Signe Hasso, Louis Calhern, Helene Reynolds, Aubrey Mather, Michael Ames
Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:52m:23s
Release Date: 2005-06-14
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-A-C B+


DVD Review

Meet Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a wealthy playboy, recently deceased. After a life of philandering and living in the lap of luxury afforded to him by the fortune amassed by his grandfather (Charles Coburn), Henry meets the Devil (Laird Cregar) and tells him his life story. Indeed as Henry narrates his life, focusing more on his love for women than anything else, we get a sense that this is a well-to-do boy who really has nothing to do.

Heaven Can Wait, the first color picture by legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, is not related to the Warren Beatty movie of the same name. The Van Cleve family represents new money, with nobody in the family understanding how to function within high society apart from Henry's cousin, Albert (Allyn Joslyn). The stuffed shirt Albert represents Henry's antithesis, working hard for a living and obeying the norms of late 19th-century New York. Thanks to Albert's efforts, the Van Cleves are about to enter into union with the Strables. The Strables are a successful family from Kansas with a beautiful daughter, Martha (Gene Tierney), who recently became Albert's fiancée. Things proceed swimmingly until Henry enters the scene, stealing his cousin's bride-to-be and eloping.

Working with his longtime screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson, Lubitsch paints one of the loveliest and funniest films of his entire career. Considering how present death is in this movie, since each segment in the life of Henry Van Cleve is marked by the death of a family member, this is a surprisingly light comedy—even the lobby to hell is inviting. I doubt that it could be made in today's cynical world, nor would any studio be likely to back a project whose main character really has no ambitions and isn't particularly successful in his laissez-faire pursuit of love. Perhaps that's the charm of the film. Henry Van Cleve is a selfish man, although a likable one (look at the scene where he courts Martha in a bookstore by pretending to be a salesman) who cannot see anything beyond his misogynist tendencies. Despite his marriage to Martha and declarations of adoration for her, Henry still chases every showgirl he can right up until lying on his deathbed.

The dialogue is quintessential Raphaelson, with the crackling wit and insight that made him one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. Even though the majority of the plot occurs in the Van Cleve estate, the mechanics of the script never feel limited by the story's stage origins. Most likely this is a result of the famous "Lubitsch touch," which places the characters in cluttered rooms that reflect the awkwardness of their newfound wealth and less than respectful relationships. Combining with the gorgeous Technicolor images and set designs, Dorothy Spencer's editing leads us through Henry's 70 years on Earth so skillfully that it wasn't until after the closing credits closed that I realized there wasn't a single reference made to the World War I or Great Depression during the film's running time.

The casting is slightly out of keeping with the other comedies of the period, especially Don Ameche. Playing Henry Van Cleve as a dolt with moments of eloquence, Ameche gives a fitting performance that more mature and sophisticated actors would have missed. Henry Van Cleve is not a suave fellow, but a lazy heir who need not put forth much effort. Even if the opening scenes of Ameche's performance strike the viewer as inconsistent with the rest of Lubitsch's leading men, his closing scene with his son will sell everyone on Ameche. Gene Tierney gives an elegant turn as Martha, both conveying the inner conflict of her character, as she hates and loves her husband, and serving as a pleasing visual attraction. However, the majority of laughs come courtesy of Charles Coburn, whose performance as the eldest Van Cleve is full of mischievous fun. Coburn's expressions and physical posture subtly convey his character's true love for disorder, even as his boisterous voice acts the part of a sophisticated businessman.

Heaven Can Wait seems to be a largely forgotten comedy. It's a shame that such a fate has befallen this film; but when the script, acting, and direction are this good, it's worth a quick stop in purgatory before entering the pearly gates.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Technicolor 1.33:1 image looks quite nice. Some noise and print defects do permeate the transfer, but considering the film's age this is to be expected. Detail is strong, the colors are luxuriously vivid, and contrast is solid. Despite some flaws in the print, this is a beautiful picture and depth is evident, helping to create a film-like look.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The audio transfer is not as successful, however, as the visual restoration. Hiss is noticeable throughout and many of Don Ameche's lines experience a sound distortion, though never so bad as to prevent the dialogue from being audible. Some crackle can be heard occasionally, but it is fairly insignificant. How many of these drawbacks can be attributed to the source material is beyond my ability to determine, but I suspect that largely there is little that can be done to improve the audio.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—contains an essay and information about the DVD release.
  2. Press Book—still images of the original release's press book, featuring text and pictures.
  3. Publicity Galley—still images of the cast that the studio used for publicity during the film's original release.
  4. Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris—a conversation videotaped between the two film critics as they discuss the film and Ernst Lubitsch.
  5. Raphaelson at MoMA—the complete audio of film critics Richard Corliss and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson discussing the film at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977.
Extras Review: A surprising amount of supplemental material rounds out this release. In typical Criterion fashion, an insert containing information about the DVD's transfers and credits starts things off. Featuring an essay by William Paul, the insert is a welcomed addition as the essay gives a good introduction to the film for those who may not be familiar with Ernst Lubitsch's work. On the disc itself, there are a variety of features showcasing 20th Century Fox's publicity campaign for the movie. The theatrical trailer is presented with its original narration by Robert Benchley, who delivers some very clever taglines for the film. Additionally, the Press Book and a Publicity Gallery are included, with still images that are selected via remote control. Neither gallery is particularly engaging, but both are fairly brief and easy enough to navigate through.

A much better supplemental feature is the conversation, Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris (24m:41s). Videotaped for this DVD, the two critics offer many insights into the film and Lubitsch's entire career. Sarris is particularly interesting to listen to, since he attended a screening of Heaven Can Wait during its original release. Practically every element of the film is touched upon here, from Raphaelson's script to censorship to its themes, and both people are very articulate. Following that is a presentation of the PBS broadcast Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson (29m:07s). Featuring an interview with Raphaelson, as well as clips of him teaching scriptwriting, this is a brief but informative look into the man's life. It chronicles his major career achievements and offers many of his ideas about how to write a script. If you are interesting in screenwriting, make sure to take a look at this feature.

Continuing with Raphaelson, the audio recordings of him and Richard Corliss at the Museum of Modern Art in 1977 are included as well. Corliss gives an introductory lecture (07m:44s) prior to the screening of Heaven Can Wait, but it is the conversation between Corliss and Raphaelson after the screening that is so interesting. Running just over 26 minutes, the conversation covers lots of new information on the script not repeated elsewhere. Raphaelson is full of humor as he recalls his experience with Hitchcock and others. There is also a question and answer session with the audience (18m:12s) that gives more information, although it is difficult to hear what the audience member is asking.

Rounding out the supplemental features is a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch's musical skills. Ernst Lubitsch: A Musical Collage (04m:31s) contains pictures of the man from the set and in his office as a recording of him playing different piano tunes occupies the front sound stage. It's nothing extraordinary, but the introduction to it by his daughter, Nicola, (03m:57s) is a touching addition worthy of a listen.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

Heaven Can Wait marks a turning point in Ernst Lubitsch's career and it is a turn for the better. The witty script, sublime direction, and astute acting merit this lavish DVD release from Criterion. Filled with an array of extras and impressive restoration efforts, the film makes a welcome return from Hades.

Nate Meyers 2005-06-13