Heaven Can Wait has faults: Don Ameche’s relative lack of charisma, the hideous make-up on Gene Tierney in the scenes where she’s meant to be middle-aged, the garishness of the colour. But they’re relatively minor ones in this great, generous, kind-hearted, loving and forgiving film. Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) is naughty but nice and good. Upon his death, he heads to hell, where he believes he belongs. But as he goes over the events of his life with His Excellency (Laird Cregar), it’s suggested that in spite of all his naughtiness, a place upstairs might in fact be more suitable. The same roundelay of women whom he thinks has brought him to hell end up being what might bring him to heaven, or at least it’s waiting room: he was charming and generous to them all and left them with memories so sweet as to be akin to love. It’s a film without villains. What causes pain are desires one can’t control even when it means hurting others, though one tries to shield them from the pain one knows one’s causing. Parents love their children, grandparents are adoring and sometimes even like as well as love their grandchildren. Husbands and wives love each other though there are limits to be set, limits one tries to uphold but sometimes transgresses, which is where forgiveness comes in. People have called this Lubitsch’s ‘testament’ film, not as in the sense of a will but as a testament to his view of life, what he believed was important; and one can’t help but see it that way. It’s certainly a film full of humour, tenderness and wisdom. When I grow up I too, like Lubitsch, want see life in its fullness, including its frailties, its cruelties, and its horrors, but through a loving lens and with a chuckle.
The scene with Eugene Palette and Marjorie Main back in Mabel’s Manse in Kansas, spatting over the funnies, and speaking to each other only through their highly diplomatic butler, is a comic masterpiece. The scene included below, is more typical of the charm, cinematic inventiveness and comic ingeniousness of the film as a whole.