Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette, Signe Hasso, Louis Calhern, Helene Reynolds, Aubrey Mather, Tod Andrews
Written by: Samson Raphaelson, based on the play by Leslie Bush-Fekete
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 112
Date: 08/11/1943

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Purging in Purgatory

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Ernst Lubitsch seemed to be running out of steam as he reached the end of his career and his final few films. After To Be or Not to Be (1942), he took on this melancholy Technicolor story about a man recounting his life story, looking for entry at the Gates of Hell. Henry Van Cleeve (Don Ameche) was a troublemaker his whole life, a womanizer, the scourge of decent families everywhere. He even stole his brother's girl (Gene Tierney) just as she was about to marry.

Lubitsch manages to wedge in a few funny scenes among the supporting players, including one about Eugene Pallette and the Sunday funnies. But his famous "touch" seems to have dulled here while dealing with the stagy material, and while patiently filming Ameche in various layers of makeup representing the passing years. As beautiful and colorful as it is, Heaven Can Wait has an overwhelming despondency, dealing as directly as it does with old age and death. Those things, it seems to me, would make a crackerjack comedy, but this time Lubitsch merely wallows in them. Lubitsch only finished one more film, Cluny Brown (1946), and his final work, That Lady in Ermine (1948), was completed by Otto Preminger after Lubitsch's death.

The Criterion Collection has done a wonderful job of restoring the rich color of this film, especially given its age and the fact that color was still a relatively new and rare (and expensive) commodity in 1943. As for extras, Andrew Sarris and his wife Molly Haskell have recorded a new conversation about the film. The disc also includes the 30-minute "Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson," a 1982 program about the screenwriter, as well as a 1977 seminar with Raphaelson and film critic Richard Corliss. Film scholar William Paul provides liner notes, and the disc includes a few of Lubitsch's homemade piano recordings. Otherwise, the disc comes with the theatrical trailer, and optional English subtitles.

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