Heaven Can Wait

Ernst Lubitsch's first effort in Technicolor shimmers like Champagne in crystal: all bubbles, trifles, and blithe sophistication

DVD Watch


Criterion, $29.95

Ernst Lubitsch has a reputation as one of the most brilliant and important directors in Hollywood history. Intelligent, witty, and visually inventive, his films in many ways exemplify everything that was great about the old studio system. So it's not a little surprising that Heaven Can Wait is only the second of his pictures released by the Criterion Collection. The first, 1932's Trouble in Paradise, is a masterpiece of deviousness and casual amorality, a remnant from the free and easy days of the pre-Production Code era, when the guidelines governing moviemakers were blissfully vague and pliable. Originally released in far stuffier and stricter 1943, Heaven Can Wait, with its stiff upper lip and buttoned-down propriety, suffers by comparison. On the surface, everything sparkles: Heaven was the first film Lubitsch shot in Technicolor, and cleaned up for DVD, its rich colors and ornate backdrops shimmer like Champagne in crystal; set in the upper class fin de siècle milieu of ball gowns and cocktail parties, the film is beautifully shot and elegantly designed. But, buried somewhere underneath all those portieres and chandeliers a spirited idea was suffocated, and what could have been one of the era's great black comedies, with a premise begging for the acid tongue of a George S. Kaufman or Billy Wilder, settles instead for being a parlor jaunt: badinage in topcoats and tails, jokes about yokels and showgirls. Potentially one of the cinema's immortal comic creations, Henry Van Cleve – a philandering post-mortem playboy so enamored of his own dissipation and amorality he angles to convince the devil to let him into Hell – is reduced to a low-grade rake by the somnolent Don Ameche and the sentimental dialogue of writer Samson Raphaelson. The film, though, is complemented admirably by the disc's extras, highlighted by a 30-minute profile of Raphaelson produced by Bill Moyers for PBS. The vitality of the man, already 80 years old at the time of the taping, belies the propriety and detachment of his writing; and his passion and enthusiasm for the craft of writing for the stage and screen, and for his past collaborations with Lubitsch, are remarkable. In an original video conversation, film critics Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris argue, at times even convincingly, for the enduring value of the film, and the rest of the collection of odds and ends – home recordings, original trailer, audio seminars – is worthwhile.

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