Ernst Lubitsch was a big-city director. The historical dramas that he made in Germany in the late teens and early twenties were known around the world for their distinctively urbane approach, focusing on the private lives of public people. This was historical drama set free from its usual heaviness to glisten with wit and innuendo, a playfully cynical view of grand historical characters. In Hollywood, Lubitsch changed genres, but the urbanity and playfulness remained, in a series of sophisticated romantic comedies that found their greatest audiences in America’s largest cities. It is fitting that Lubitsch in the 1930s worked chiefly at Paramount Pictures, the most stylish and European-oriented of the major studios: the series of musicals he produced for Paramount (with one side trip to MGM) were either set in Ruritania, mythical European kingdoms, or, like most of his straight comedies, in major European capitals. By 1935, Variety could declare, “Sticks Nix Hick Pix,” a predilection likely reflecting the recent transformation of the United States into a predominantly urban nation. But, even so, Lubitsch’s films never went over in the sticks; with their mischievously good-humored view of adultery and, as far as the Code would allow, teasing approach to conventional morality, they were too refined and, ultimately, perhaps too European in their worldview to offer an alternative to “hick pix.”
Heaven Can Wait was different: with this film, Lubitsch achieved his greatest commercial success in the sound period and his first Oscar nomination for best director since The Love Parade, in 1929. There is still a strongly urban sensibility at work here, particularly in its treatment of the buffoonish in-laws from Kansas, the Strables. But in a film as centrally concerned with marriage as Heaven Can Wait, even the hicks are humanized, with the ever-contentious Strables providing a farcical reflection of the complex set of imbalances and insensitivities that Lubitsch sees as lying at the foundation of even a happy marriage. And if he was still the urban sophisticate, with Heaven Can Wait, Lubitsch moved from Ruritania to a vision of America that had become increasingly popular in Hollywood films in the late thirties and early forties, and that was particularly rife at Twentieth Century Fox, the studio with which he signed a three-year contract in 1941.
Lubitsch’s comedy had been sufficiently idiosyncratic for him to become a model for other directors, such as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges. Nevertheless, he was not immune to stylistic currents, clearly responding to the ascendancy of screwball comedy with two works that appeared toward the end of that subgenre’s efflorescence: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) and That Uncertain Feeling (1941). But screwball was not an agreeable style for Lubitsch, whose work was becoming more contemplative, quieter. It is that thoughtful quality that pervades Heaven Can Wait, inscribed in the flashback structure of its narrative. And this shift was in keeping with other changes in Hollywood movies of the time: with the Depression and the impending political catastrophe in Europe, American high comedy was becoming more realistic in manner, more middle-class in milieu, and more political in its concerns. Lubitsch was deeply affected by these changes.
In this light, then, Lubitsch’s move to Twentieth Century Fox—a studio specializing in historical films and nostalgic evocations of small-town America—is not as surprising as it might at first appear. Lubitsch could never embrace the small town, but he could reasonably make New York the focus of his venture into Americana. And with his very American ordinariness, Don Ameche, then one of Fox’s leading male stars, could help move Lubitsch in this direction.
Lubitsch’s main screenwriter in this period, Samson Raphaelson, told of Lubitsch’s showing him a screen test he did of Ameche, chiefly to please studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck. At the end of the screening, Lubitsch leaned over to Raphaelson and said, “He’s good. Isn’t that awful!” By “good,” Lubitsch might simply have meant that Ameche was technically proficient, but perhaps we can read something more paradoxical into this paradoxically expressed appreciation.
Ameche had built his reputation playing historical figures in biopics—Alexander Graham Bell, Stephen Foster, Lillian Russell’s husband—and the quasi-historical fictional characters of In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, and The Three Musketeers. But even when playing great historical figures overcoming adversity—the most familiar trope of the biopic—Ameche, with his bland boyishness, made them appear untouched by everything that happens to them, by everything they achieve. Lubitsch seemed to be picking up on this aspect of Ameche when he later wrote, “I encountered partly great resistance before I made this picture, because it had no message and made no point whatsoever. The hero was a man only interested in good living, with no aim of accomplishing anything, or doing anything noble.” Heaven Can Wait takes the form of the biopic but turns the genre upside down by applying its conventions to a character of no significance. By this idiosyncratic inversion of the genre, Lubitsch strips everyday events of the pretensions biopics artificially place on them in order to make events of little dramatic consequence dramatically significant in themselves.
For all that it inverts the biopic, however, Heaven Can Wait seems, on the surface, the one Lubitsch film that draws most strongly on the conventions of the period, situating itself firmly among the family films that flourished in a burst of nostalgia through the late thirties and early forties and utilizing the flashback narrative structure that had become so prevalent in the early forties that even remakes of films from the thirties, like Waterloo Bridge (1940) and Roxie Hart (1942), employed flashbacks where the originals had not. Grafting a flashback structure onto a linear narrative transformed it into a form of historical inquiry, helping to create the cinema of memory that proliferated in this period, perhaps as a response to the Second World War. Heaven Can Wait has a sense of history as well, but a fairly peculiar one in the context of the other films of the period, since it manages to span seventy years, moving through the Spanish-American War, the First World War, the stock market crash, the Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the Second World War, without one reference, not even an oblique one, to any of these catastrophic events. The narrowness of focus is reflected in both the actor and the character: as Ameche the actor often seems untouched by experience, Henry is a character repeatedly defined by his lack of awareness.
While eschewing specific historical events, the film finds its own distinctive way of defining how the outside world is developing and how characters are developing in relation to it. Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait uses color to record historical change: color grows increasingly muted in the ever-transforming settings and costumes as the film progresses up to the present day of its audience, with bright reds and deep blues, both fairly saturated and vibrant in their contrast of hot and cold tones, yielding to ivories and finally pale whites. The elliptical structure of the film’s narrative never permits us to see characters effecting these changes, and the characters themselves never remark on them. As a consequence, every change seems to happen mysteriously, as if of its own accord. Just as a child may view changes in his universe as miraculously self-generating because he does not have the knowledge or experience to know how they come about, change is presented in this film as self-generating because it is a view that belongs to the narrator, Henry himself.
Henry’s unawareness of the larger world is a sign of his limitation, the man who never accomplished anything, yet, perversely, for Lubitsch it is also a sign of his grace. A transcendental quality that began to emerge in the later Lubitsch films moves front and center in Heaven Can Wait. Relevant to this new quality is one other striking way in which this film plays into conventional expectations of the period and then plays against them. From the first episode on, a dramatic movement sets itself against the usual movement of romantic comedy by creating another pattern of events that emerges through the fragmented structure of the narrative. With each successive episode, we slowly realize—usually with the aid of an indirect comment from Henry’s mother, Bertha, about the dear, late departed—that a character from the previous episode has died in the interval: Grandma after the first episode; Randolph, Henry’s father, after the elopement in the second; and finally, after the scene in which Henry and Martha renew their marriage, Grandpa and the eulogizer Bertha herself. A pattern of morbid expectation thus sets itself against the romantic comedy, a pattern that is not only fulfilled but perversely escalated after the renewal scene, when two characters subsequently drop from sight. No Lubitsch film is so pervaded by a sense of death as Heaven Can Wait, because no Lubitsch film is so filled, as the patterning of departures makes this film, with a sense of the transience of life.
Like the unacknowledged changes in set design and fashions, the ellipses in Heaven Can Wait take on a mysterious quality, mysterious in the profoundest sense of something great and unknowable. Where the ultrasophisticated characters in Lubitsch’s earlier films have a firm grasp on the world, in the elusive world of Heaven Can Wait, a world beyond absolute understanding, Henry is most blessed by his innocence. Because the individual exists within this larger, impenetrable order, the examination of any individual life, however restricted in focus—and Heaven Can Wait’s is very restricted—must also be an examination of the world in which the individual lives. Henry might be an innocent, but he tells his story to an urbane devil who would be right at home in the world of Lubitsch’s thirties comedies, and, from his knowing perspective, the devil can finally make something different of Henry’s life story than Henry himself. Henry’s innocence, then, is cast within a sophisticated worldview that both echoes and enriches Lubitsch’s earlier work. While the individual life of Henry is unimportant to the course of history, by the simple act of living he takes in the whole world and the history in which he lives. Heaven Can Wait might be nothing more than the life story of a man who did not amount to much, as Lubitsch claimed, but it is also nothing less. Heaven Can Wait brilliantly maintains the exquisite balance between tragic and comic impulses, between shifting views of man as an individual and man as an element of society, that marks Lubitsch’s best work.
William Paul, a professor of film and media studies at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy and Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. He is currently working on a new book, Movies/Theaters: Architecture, Exhibition, and Film Technology.