I have always been a bit more immune to the famous "Lubitsch touch" than I ought to be. After all, what is there not to love about witty dialogue batted briskly between stylish characters, splashing in tidal pools of double entendre? But the three films by the director that I have seen (Trouble in Paradise, To be or not to be, and Ninotchka) left me sadly cold. All struck me as potentially scintillating films that descend into sentimentality, predictability or falsehood.
When I began Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait last night, I thought Ernst and I had finally understood each other. It begins likea hellish counterpart to Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Where the British film follows its hero from a technicolor earth to an infinite, shining black-and-white heaven, Lubitsch opens Heaven Can Wait (1943) down below, in the glossy, vast waiting room of Hell, where an oddly compassionate Devil (all waxed mustaches and toothy smiles) waits to judge whether you've been bad enough to earn a fast trip through a flaming trap door. If not, it's back into the elevator for you, and we'll see whether they'll take you above.
So Henry van Cleve, child of privilege, charmer of parents and grandparents and legions of women, sets his considerable persuasive skills to work on Satan. By way of earning a place in Hell, he recounts his life story, starting with a mischievous, spoiled childhood spent getting drunk with the French maid and making astonishingly filthy jokes (for Code-muzzled Hollywood, at least):
That woman with the elaborately expensive dress and the ludicrous accent is the maid, by the by.
The early part of the film is the most ingenious, because it is in the carefully drawn stereotypes of his various family members (a father who can't give utterance to any sentiment but the need to maintain a stiff upper lip, for instance) that the film strikes its richest comic balance between affection and the harshness of satire. On learning that our hero has been sneaking out to drink champagne at a restaurant with the French maid, this is how his family reacts:
Goody Two-Shoes Cousin Albert:The grandfather is by far the most appealing character in this familial menagerie. He is all bluster: stern disapproval masking a boyish love of hijinks. (The scene above ends with his congratulation of his grandson Albert, whose willingness to rat on his cousin apparently does the family proud. No sooner does Albert make his smug way downstairs then he finds himself on the receiving end of a glass of water his proud grandpapa has poured from the landing above. There is much giggling and grandparental creeping-away that follows this dousing.) This aged ancestor wields the words "I love you" like they are a club to bludgeon his family with at the end of a string of insults. [Anything after this point, by the way, might be accounted a spoiler by the more... plot-squeamish among you.] Even when his beloved grandson falls in love, marries, and drives his beloved away with his perpetual infidelities, who is on hand to help the scamp win her back but grandpa! Naturally.
"But that's not all, grandfather. It seems, from what I could gather, that Mrs. Asterbrook, of the Asterbrooks, who was sitting at an adjoining table, resented bitterly the idea of Henry dropping a nickel into her decolletage and complaining to the management because no chocolate bar dropped out of Mrs. Asterbrook."
"Mrs. Asterbrook? How can I ever face her?"
"What a disgrace!"
"I'm going to teach that boy a lesson."
"Yes, that what he deserves - throwing nickels around like that. Knowing the Asterbrooks, I can tell you right now we'll never see that nickel again."
Don't worry: the heroine will get her own Dickensian nightmare of a family, all of whom are simultaneously affectionate and unbearable. They are meatpacking magnates, their company represented by a cartoony cow who gleefully proclaims her joy in being eaten in singsong verse. "We're very proud of Kansas," her mother declares in funereal tones, upon first being introduced to New York society. Her parents are so ensnared in conflicting midwestern puritanisms that every breakfast descends into an apocalyptic battle for the funny papers of Dr. Strangelove proportions. It's a remarkable scene when we are given a glimpse of these morning maneuvers.
Despite an abundance of scenes like these, scenes which would make sublime short comedies in their own right, the movie falls flatter and flatter as it goes on. In part this is the same problem I've had with Lubitsch before: the pacing isn't as crisp as this style normally warrants. It isn't as sharp and rollicking and mercilessly paced as Wilde or Coward or Sorkin or Shaw working with similar material. But this isn't even the real problem. This I could forgive when weigh in the balance against the abundance of great scenes like the breakfast table battle. No, the problem is the heroine: Gene Tierney really sinks this film.
I don't ever remember hating Gene Tierney before, although I have to admit that it has been some years since I have seen anything of hers. (I LOVE Laura, so I'm not going to hold this or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir against her.) But here she is stiff and undernourished and paralyzed by artificiality. The words that fall from her careful pout are somehow both diffident and tortured. And, thanks to bad styling and some truly terrible wigs, she is not even particularly lovely for most of the film. Of course, she has a hard row to hoe: while Don Ameche gets to be the dashing, energetic playboy, beloved of all who see him (with the notable exception of a showgirl he encounters in middle age, who really gets the best of him), she has to play the befuddled, put-upon wife, doomed to perpetual cycles of betrayal, disillusionment and forgiveness-against-her-better-judgment until finally she perishes (some years after her self-respect must have died). She does get some phenomenally complex scenes, however, the best of which is the one where, having left her philandering husband and returned to Kansas, she tells her parents and smug Albert that she won't be judged for the years of her marriage under any circumstances. It wasn't ten years of suffering, she says, and she refuses to be cast as that kind of woman. It was a decade of highs and lows, like any other marriage.
Oh, it begins so very high. Henry sees her at a public telephone, lying to her mother about why she isn't home yet. Smitten, he pursues he into a bookstore, where he finds his beloved perusing a book titled "Making your Husband Happy."
What is a man to do in a situation like that but pose as a sales clerk and persuade the young lady that she needs neither the book nor the man she myopically believes she is marrying. After an astonishing sales pitch, the disguise begins to crumble:
"If you don't change your attitude, I shall have to complain to your employer."
"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."
D, a word to the wise (by which I mean anyone smart enough to fall in love with a bibliophile): anytime you want to say those words to me in a bookstore, I'm yours.
And let's not forget the film's best (only?) elevator: the one that takes hell's rejects up to the other place. It's hard not to remember this part of the bookstore scene at the film's end....