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When former New York playboy Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) finally passes on, his soul is resigned to damnation in Hell. But His Excellency, the Devil (Laird Cregar) isn't convinced that Henry has come to the right place and before passing final judgment, invites Henry to tell his story, from infancy to death. Henry learned something of the facts of life from his French governess (Signe Hasso) before falling in love with Martha (Gene Tierney), the wholesome daughter of a Kansas beef tycoon whom he had stolen from an uppity cousin Albert (Alan Josslyn). Finally, the worm turns in life's rich cycle and Henry finds himself trying to protect his son from the very showgirls that he himself had once wooed.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Not to be confused with Warren Beatty's like-titled 1978 film, which was actually a remake of Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941), this deliciously witty romantic comedy still looks ravishing in its luxuriant Technicolor and is as captivating now as it was to audiences of 60 years ago. In 50 years and 50 films, Don Ameche never got the whiff of an Oscar until Cocoon in 1984, but the poor man's Ronald Colman (the resemblance was often remarkable) was never better than as the pathetically repentant Casanova who, upon his death imagines he is bound for the cauldrons of Hades for past sins, but who on meeting with The Devil finds himself on the pathway to Purgatory.

Based on an obscure Hungarian play, the story spans 70 years in the life of Henry Van Cleve who is supplanted into privileged ranks of New York society in the late 19th Century. Urbane, charming, amorous and indolent, never working and never caring, Henry flits from one peccadillo to another until his steady but stuffy cousin Albert announces his engagement to the dazzling daughter of a nouveau riche Kansas meat-packer (Eugene Pallette).

It turns out that the bewitching but unworldly Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney) would agree to almost anything (even Albert) to escape the tedium of life in the homely heartland, but Henry instantly falls in love and is determined to turn her head. Famous from his formative years in German cinema and for 20 years in Hollywood for "the Lubitsch touch;" for Trouble In Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), To Be Or Not To Be and The Shop Around The Corner (1942), the director is busy again making mischief in the form of subtle social satire in what was his last noteworthy film.

Hitchcock had his MacGuffin and Lubitsch had his touch. Studio publicity, accurate for once, described him as a "master of refined comedy and intimate detail." His films were sexy, though you might barely notice; his camera might linger over an item or gesture of apparent inconsequence, until its significance dawned like a sudden burst of sunshine between clouds. Watch when Henry poses as a sales clerk to woo Martha in the bookshop and wait for Henry to casually remove a book from its shelf near the end for the film's most sentimental and endearing moment. There's an hilarious scene between the feuding Strabels, the gravel-voiced Pallette and his wife (Marjorie Main, of Ma Kettle fame), who haven't spoken for years and relay messages through their black manservant Jasper, gliding backwards and forwards from opposite ends of a vast dining table. That remarkably gifted comic actor Edward Everett Horton (Trouble In Paradise) surmised that "in no part of any Lubitsch picture did he have an actor who was not just right." And, true to form in this magnificent cast of second-tier pros, everyone from Clarence Muse as the diffident Jasper to Anita Sharp-Bolster, once glimpsed and once heard as the much maligned diva, Mrs Cooper-Cooper are "just right."

The music, with lilting snippets from By The Light Of The Silvery Moon (a song featured in at least nine movies before the 1953 Doris Day musical of the same name) help to gently nudge Heaven Can Wait from its sleepier moments. Ah, sweet nostalgia...this is what they mean when they lament how "they don't make 'em like they used to."

Published October 20, 2005

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(US, 1943)

CAST: Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn

DIRECTOR: Ernst Lubitsch

SCRIPT: Samson Raphaelson (based on the play Birthdays by Ladislaus Bus-Fekete

RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

PRESENTATION: 1.3:1 / 3 x 4


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: October 19, 2005

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