From that moment on, one thing was clear to me. If you want to win a girl, you’ve got to have lots of beetles.
—Henry (Don Ameche), Heaven Can Wait
The form is very light, but the essence is very dark and very deep.
—Andrew Sarris, “Conversation,” Heaven Can Wait: Criterion Collection
Imagination is the capacity to see what’s there.
—Samson Raphaelson, Creativity with Bill Moyers
The newly dead Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wants to be judged. Unhappy that his life has amounted to little more than a series of half-hearted affairs, he decides, while passing “over the Great Divide,” to cut a deal with Satan (Laird Cregar). Henry’s encounter with His Excellency at the start of Heaven Can Wait takes the form of a business meeting: surrounded by red curtains and perfectly arranged bookshelves, they discuss terms while seated at the Devil’s massive desk.
Henry recalls his moment of death sweetly: he woke from what seemed a brief sleep to find his relatives all around him, “speaking in low tones and saying nothing but the kindest things about me. Then I knew I was dead.” As he proceeds to tell his life story, ostensibly in order to convince Satan that indeed, he does belong in hell (to which a “passport,” insists the Devil, “is not issued on generalities”), it becomes clear that Henry was never much invested in doing right by his relatives, friends, or lovers. A vaguely selfish, unimaginative sort, he instead pursued his own immediate pleasures.
In his lack of sharply edged evil or good, Henry is an atypical protagonist, even mundane. Indeed, observes Andrew Sarris in conversation with fellow critic and wife Molly Haskell available on Criterion’s smart new DVD of this often overlooked film, Henry is particularly odd during World War II. Sarris recalls, “Lubitsh himself said at one point that people didn’t appreciate [the movie] too much, because the hero was not a very heroic character. This was an age of heroes, people positive and edifying… And he was a loafer, he chased women, not very successfully.”
And yet, as Haskell adds, the film is not so lightweight, sentimental or even apolitical as it first appears. Rather, she says, “There is this dark undercurrent, I think the whole thing of the Casanova is that he’s running away from time. And yet you have these markers, constantly, the birthdays and the anniversaries.” Time is ever lurking, and ever passing, throughout Heaven Can Wait, even as Henry imagines himself exceptional, not limited by usual mortal concerns. As he explains it to Satan, he was led to this self-image from the moment he was born, as his mother, grandmother, and nurse doted on him. Remembering himself as the object of a threeway contest, he describes his nurse’s devotion: “I was her honeybunch, her ‘oogi-woogi-woo.’” As she wheels his stroller through the park, where other babies are similarly coddled by their nurses, the scene changes radically when the local bobby comes along and distracts the nurse from her charge, now reduced to “you nasty little brat.” Ah, he observes, “No wonder I became a cynic.”
As Henry believes he “grew rapidly” with New York, Samson Raphaelson’s sharp script shows his development not only by way of the women he seduces and abandons (this being the most obvious narrative frame), but also by the city’s own shifting class, political, and industrial structures, circa 1887 to 1940. From his juvenile flirtation with French maid Signe Hasso’s Yvette (“Ah, je comprends. My understanding for young man is perfect. Your soul is bigger than your pants”) to his ongoing interest in his cousin Albert’s (Allyn Joslyn) beautiful fiancée, Martha (Gene Tierney). As he puts it, this interest was ignited when he overheard “this angel lying to her mother” on the phone. He follows her to a bookstore, where he pretends to be a clerk in order to solicit her secret desire for a book whose title she cannot even speak, How to Make Your Husband Happy.
Despite her good-girlish apprehension at this brash young man’s efforts to win her away from the exceedingly moral Albert, Martha eventually gives in and marries Henry. Ten years later, she announces her departure with a telegram, assuring him that she’ll make arrangements to pick up their son Jackie and reassuring him that his “ingenuity” will help him make up a story to cover for her absence. “I don’t know what she’s heard,” Henry bumbles for his grandfather (Charles Coburn). “No man is perfect.” Grandpa won’t take this profession of ignorance at face value, and insists that Henry recover his wife, or else “I’ll hit you over the head with a baseball bat!”
From this moment of Henry’s seeming panic, the film changes course, taking up Martha’s experience, as she returns to her childhood home in Kansas, fully submitting to her father’s (Eugene Pallette) insistence that she apologize for being so foolish a decade before. This despite the fact that she rejects the public reading of her retreat as sign of failure. “On the contrary, I can say there were moments in my marriage,” she tells the newly encouraged and rather annoyingly doting Albert, “which few women have been lucky enough to have experienced.” Because no one has confidence in Henry, no one is quite willing to believe her however, and so the movie offers up a series of images to show just why Henry—a liar and a poor performer when he puts on his tragic face—is more attractive than the fuddy-duddys who appear so dully trustworthy.
Martha’s experience seeing through Henry’s many ruses leaves him with little to fall back on. “So I’m a fake, I’m false, I’m cheap,” he whines when she calls him on pretending to cry over her leaving. He wins her back, not because she quite believes his lies that he’s not been cheating, but because she misses little Jackie. Their reunion, however, is hardly the film’s concern. Rather, it rushes through another 10 or so birthdays, marked by a montagey series of cakes chock-full of candles, in order to set up Henry for another disastrous self-encounter. Occasioned by his clumsy effort to seduce Follies girl Peggy Nash (Helene Reynolds), the moment has Henry facing his status as a relic from another era, or, as she calls him, “the great cavalier of the gay ‘90s,” now old enough to be her father (she has a photo of his son in her dressing room). Noting that he’s now a “retired man,” she adds, “Some grow flowers, and some grow a tummy.” Ouch. And more: Martha admits that when he started to grow that tummy, she felt “safe,” that he was hers, once and for all.
Henry doesn’t quite know it yet, but his aging only makes visible the process of loss that constitutes his life. As Sarris notes, “Henry always comes out being lower on the totem pole.” To the end of his life, after Martha’s passing and son Jack’s ascent to head of the family business, Henry remains a self-absorbed lout, too in love with himself and too comfortable in his privilege to grasp his own ignorance. Despite Henry’s seeming happy ending (he does not go straight to hell), he can’t be understood as a romantic hero or even a romantic comedic hero. He’s cruel, he’s small, and everyone around him knows and describes him as such. He can’t keep up.
As glorious and astute as Henry might think himself, the movie is more interested in his lapses, a point made clear by the extras on Criterion’s DVD, including the Sarris-Haskell conversation, a 1982 episode of Creativity with Bill Moyers: A Portrait of Samson Raphaelson, which includes some discussion of The Jazz Singer, Raphaelson’s first play (he disavows the film version: “The whole thing embarrasses me”), and 1977’s “Raphaelson at MOMA,” with critic Richard Corliss as moderator. The screenwriter’s memories of his work with Lubitsch clarify the joys of collaboration. “He wrote some of my best lines,” he tells Moyers, even as he laments his youthful desire for singular credit. “Because of some old wound,” he sighs. “The pain continues to make you drive forward and makes you need to do it all yourself.” With age, he asserts, you might be able to judge your work, your capacities, and yourself.