Thursday, August 27, 2015

1943 - Heaven Can Wait

Yes, I know. It's been ages since my last post ... again. So what's new? In that time, my episode of Maron has aired, I got cast in an Annette Bening movie, and Kat, Charlie and I spent three weeks in Australia, catching up with friends and family. Oh, and we have a new baby due in a couple of months! Which will likely destroy any chance of this project's pace speeding up.

But enough of life. Let's get back to the movies. Here's the next of 1943's contenders for Best Picture...


Heaven Can Wait
Director:
Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay:
Samson Raphaelson
(based on the play "Birthday" by Leslie Bush-Fekete)
Starring:
Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Laird Cregar, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette
Academy Awards:
3 nominations
0 wins

Upon his death, Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) decides to skip the Pearly Gates and head downstairs first, convinced that Hell is where he belongs. The Devil (Cregar), who seems surprisingly amiable, is skeptical of Henry's claims of leading a terrible life and so Henry begins to tell his life's story. He relates tales from every decade or so, covering his precocious childhood and his early womanizing through to his rocky relationship with Martha (Tierney) and his twilight years.

The opening scene of Heaven Can Wait is charming in a silly sort of way - a recently deceased man engages in civil conversation with the Devil - which erroneously sets up the film to have a slightly twisted view of reality. I say 'erroneously' because, while what follows is quirky with plenty of comic relief, there is no more offbeat supernatural humour until the conclusion. The scenes in Hell are merely bookends to what is essentially a sincere, albeit witty, story of one man's life.

The first couple of sequences feel a little light on substance. Still funny, but light and fluffy. Sort of a 1940s version of one of Tom Hanks' early comedies. But once Henry and Martha meet, things become a bit more compelling, even though much of the action is not particularly believable. Then again, it's a rom-com, so I suppose you just have to accept that people fall in love at first sight and elope at the drop of a hat. (You also have to set aside the latent misogyny in a storyline that is essentially a man badgering a woman until she agrees she's in love with him. Sign of the times, I guess.)

Long and wordy scenes fill up the film's almost two hours, reminding us that it was based on a play. However, the banter is delightful so it's enjoyable to watch. And for a film that attempts to cram an entire lifespan into one story, Heaven Can Wait feels very appropriately paced. It's so easy for films of this nature to rush through certain ages, but here, it's not too fast and it's not too slow. We spend a decent amount of time in each age bracket witnessing certain milestones before skipping ten years to the next one, allowing for a feeling of truly knowing this man. By the end of his life, we've seen Henry and those around him age so slowly that it is genuinely a moving experience.

As the meant-to-be lovers, Don Ameche and Gene Tierney (pictured together) have great chemistry, making it easy to accept them as lifelong partners. Tierney's comic delivery, however, leaves a little to be desired. Not to worry, though, because Ameche (over 40 years before his Oscar win for Cocoon) is incredibly engaging as the initially pompous cad with a heart of gold. Charles Coburn also offers up some grand comic relief as Grandpapa. Not too surprisingly, though, the film didn't receive any acting nominations. Instead, its three nods came for Ernst Lubitsch's direction, Edward Cronjager's cinematography and, of course, the picture itself.

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