Heaven Can Wait (1943)


USA. 1943.


Director/Producer – Ernst Lubitsch, Screenplay – Samson Raphaelson, Based on the Play Birthdays by Laszlo Bus-Fekete, Photography – Edward Cronjager, Music – Alfred Newman, Special Effects – Fred Sersen, Art Direction – James Basevi & Leland Fuller. Production Company – 20th Century Fox


Don Ameche (Henry Van Cleave), Gene Tierney (Martha Strable), Laird Cregar (The Devil), Allyn Joslyn (Albert Van Cleave), Charles Coburn (Grandfather), Michael Ames (Jack Van Cleave), Louis Calhern (Mr Strable), Helene Reynolds (Peggy Nash)


The late Henry Van Cleave arrives at the entrance to Hell, certain that he will have to be admitted. The Devil is not so sure and asks Henry to tell his life story. Henry tells of the life he spent womanising, beginning with seducing his French tutor at the age of fifteen then the stealing and marrying of his cousin’s fiancée on the eve of their wedding to the flings he still carried on with beautiful women throughout his marriage and into his old age.

Heaven Can Wait is a most unusual film. It is a semi-legitimate genre entry – although the fantasy content is minimal and only consists of an incidental framing device wherein Don Ameche is in the afterlife telling his lifestory to The Devil. The rest of the film is the portrait of a compulsive womaniser – neither the framing device not the character of the Devil are present in the original stage play that the film is based on. The film is certainly remarkable in its creation of sympathy for what should otherwise be seen as an unlikable character – a rampant womaniser, a liar, a cheat and an adulterer. (The film is so morally inverted that here even the Devil proves to be a nice guy who at the end shrugs and tells Henry to go onto Heaven). It is a well written film – there are moments when it pulls back in gentle, absolving understandings of its character that have a beautiful lucidity. The courtly, teasing charms of Don Ameche’s performance are rather good too.

Heaven Can Wait is based on a play entitled Birthdays (1934) by Hungarian Laszlo Bus-Fekete. One can see that the play has it over the film – each act of the play is set around one of the character’s titular birthdays. In the film, without the dramatic effect of having a curtain come down to physically close each scene, the basic concept is lost and is even further diluted by the film’s meaningless title change.

The title Heaven Can Wait has caused some confusion with other films. Heaven Can Wait (1938) was also the name of a popular play that was filmed under the title Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941). Several years later, Here Comes Mr Jordan was remade but this time under its own title as Heaven Can Wait (1978) starring Warren Beatty. The two films, Heaven Can Wait 1943 and Heaven Can Wait 1978, are often thought to be remake and original but there is no relation between the two outside of the title.

Director Ernst Lubitsch was a German expatriate who was brought to Hollywood by Mary Pickford. Lubitsch became known for his drolly sophisticated romantic comedies, which included Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Merry Widow (1934), Angel (1937), Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

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