Martha [played by Gene Tierney]: “If you don't change your attitude, I shall have to complain to your employer.”
Henry Van Cleve [played by Don Ameche]: “I'm not employed here. I'm not a book salesman. I took one look at you and followed you into the store. If you'd walked into a restaurant, I would have become a waiter. If you'd walked into a burning building, I would have become a fireman. If you'd walked into an elevator, I would have stopped it between two floors and we'd have spent the rest of our lives there. Please forgive me but you can't walk out of my life like that.”— Heaven Can Wait (1943), screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Leslie Bush-Fekete, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
No, the 1943 Heaven Can Wait had nothing to do with the 1978 Warren Beatty comedy. (That derived from another vintage 1940s comedy, Here Comes Mr. Jordan.) But it has a charm all its own, courtesy of the same screenwriter-director team that worked on Trouble in Paradise (1932) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Samson Raphaelson and Ernst Lubitsch.
For years after he went on to forge his own independent career, writer-director Billy Wilder paid tribute to his mentor by keeping a sign on his office wall reading, ““How would Lubitsch do it?” The so-called “Lubitsch touch” is as evident in the above bit of dialogue as in the classic he made with Wilder, Ninotchka. Sure, it involved a Continental, worldly attitude toward sexuality (he was a German émigré), but it was all delivered with charm, sophistication, often ruefulness, and never crudely or obviously.
Don Ameche’s Henry Van Cleve (originally written, I was surprised to learn, with Fredric March in mind) is the kind of man with a love for the feminine form who, while he might have shocked some in his own time (his youth was during the Gay Nineties), was too fundamentally good-hearted not to be forgiven over time—including by his beautiful, long-suffering wife Martha. (Even the debonair "His Excellency"--i.e., Satan-- doesn't think Henry's application to the nether region is quite up to snuff.)
Heaven Can Wait was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It wasn’t its fault that it ran into a juggernaut known as Casablanca. It’s well worth catching on DVD or Turner Classic Movies, the next time it shows up. Co-stars Ameche and Tierney might have been contract players taken on with regret by Lubitsch at the behest of Twentieth-Century Fox, but the director extracted some of the best work they ever produced on film.
See why my favorite film blogger, “Self-Styled Siren,” calls this “the wisest commentary on marital happiness that she has ever seen.”