Heaven Can Wait (1943): Lubitsch’s First Color, Oscar-Nominated Film

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, “Heaven Can Wait,” his first film in color, displays what has become known as the Lubitsch touch, his subtle, deft handling of comedy and sex. Loosely based on the Hungarian stage comedy “Birthdays” by Laszlo Bus-Fekete, the script is penned by Samson Raphaelson, a frequent collaborator of Lubitsch.

This charming movie offers an account of family life in late 19th century, defined by elegant sets and costumes, centering on the life of a man from infancy to death. Don Ameche, who usually played secondary roles, is cast in a starring role, for a change, as a middle-class, well-born New Yorker named Henry Van Cleve, a dandy who could be described as an “innocent Casanova.”

The story begins with Van Cleve standing before the Devil–he thinks his sexual conduct has been sinful and thus applies for membership in Hell. After being examined by the urbane Devil-His Excellency (Laird Cregar), Van Cleve is sent to Heaven, told that his life hasn’t been all that wicked.

While applies to Satan, he tells his story in flashbacks (Henry at 7, at 15) and realize that he was essentially a generous if eccentric man. Gene Tierney, at her most beautiful, plays the Kansas girl he steals from his stuffy cousin, Albert Van Cleve (Allyn Joslyn)

This lightly whimsical, quite charming comedy of manners satirizing social and sexual mores could have benefited form a stronger, more charismatic actor than Amechesay Cary Grant. Lack of chemistry between Ameche and Tierney is also a problem. But it’s worth seeing if you like the work of Lubitsch, whose untimely death, in 1947 at the age of 55, deprived Hollywood of one of its most sophisticated and consummate artists; Lubitch
Would complete only two more films.

Oscar Nominations: 3

Picture, produced by Ernst Lubitsch
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematography (color): Edward Cronjager

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

This was the last year, in which ten films were nominated for Best Picture. In 1944, the top category was standardized to include five nominees (as in most categories).

In 1943, “Heaven Can Wait” competed for the Best Picture with “Casablanca” (which won), “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Human Comedy,” “In Which We Serve,” “Madame Curie,” “The More the Merrier,” “The Ox-Bow Incident,” “The Song of Bernadette,” and “Watch on the Rhine.”

The most nominated films were “The Song of Bernadette” (10), followed by “For Whom the Bell Tolls” (9). Though at the top of his form, Bogart lost the Actor Oscar to Paul Lukas for “Watch on the Rhine,” which won the Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Michael Curtiz won the Director Oscar for “Casablanca,” and “The Phantom of the Opera” won the Color Cinematography and Interior Decoration.

Cast

Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche)
Martha (Gene Tierney)
Hugo Van Cleve (Charles Coburn)
Mrs. Strabel (Marjorie Main)
His Excellency (Laird Cregar)
Bertha Van Cleve (Spring Byington)
Albert Van Cleve (Allyn Joslyn)
Mr. Strabel (Eugene Pallette)
Mademoiselle (Signe Hasso)
Randolph Van Cleve (Louis Calhern)

Credits

Produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, based on the play “Birthdays” by Ladislaus Bus-Fekete.
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Music: Alfred Newman
Art Direction: James Basevi, Leland Fuller
Costumes: Rene Hubert