Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Back in college I saw Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise. You forget what they could get away with pre-code in Hollywood, so I was pretty stunned by how funny, sexually suggestive and cheerfully cynical it was for an early 1930's comedy. It was pretty awesome, so I'm surprised it's taken me this long to watch another of Lubitsch's films.
Heaven Can Wait starts off with a similar style and sense of humor as Trouble in Paradise, but deepens into something more as the film progresses. It's about a man who dies and heads to hell, believing that's where he belongs, but before he gains entrance, he has to tell his life story, in order to determine if he's really in the right place. So he tells of his exploits as an ace manipulator, smooth talker, and womanizer.
At first there's a lot of darkish but high-spirited humor... he woos his family's French maid when he's just a teenager, he steals his cousin's fiancee... he's kind of a lovable shithead, but as the movie goes along you start to realize that maybe he's not such a bad guy, he loves his wife, loves his family, ultimately will try to do the right thing. Before you know it, the movie goes from charming comedy to a touching meditation on life and growing old. It never becomes overtly dramatic, it always stays classy and well-mannered, but still somehow accumulates some power and dare I say some of that movie magic I cherish.
That of course would be the famous "Lubitsch touch," which is enough to bring me back for more of his movies. But I'd also like to throw a shout out to Don Ameche, who played the main character. He was in his 30's when he filmed this, but with makeup he ages from his 20's to his 70's during the course of the film, and fairly convincingly. Watching this guy grow old, you really come to love him, and Ameche's charm has a lot to do with that.