Friday, December 4, 2020

Don Ameche meets “His Excellency” in “Heaven Can Wait” (1943)

Heaven Can Wait (1943) is an American comedy produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. It stars Gene Tierney, Don Ameche, and Charles Coburn. The film is shot in beautiful 20th Century-Fox Technicolor.

The plot begins with Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) at the end of his life speaking to “His Excellency” (Laird Cregar) the gatekeeper in Hell. Henry thinks that due to all his life’s failings, he deserves to spend eternity there away from all the people he loved on earth especially his beloved wife Martha (Tierney). 

Born in 1972 to an upper-class family in New York City, Henry has been indulged by all his family members including his mother (Spring Byington), his father (Louis Calhern), his grandmother (Clara Blandick), and his grandfather (Coburn). Will all this fawning and making excuses for Henry during his lifetime doom him to an eternity with His Excellency?

Don Ameche and Gene Tierney

Ernst Lubitsch (1892 – 1947) was a German-born American film director and producer. He is best known for his sophisticated comedies, especially those produced before the Production Code went into effect in 1934. Lubitsch was a successful director in his native Germany but was brought to Hollywood in 1922 to direct Mary Pickford in Rosita (1923). The film was a success but Pickford and Lubitsch didn’t get along very well. He signed a contract with Warner Bros. and his career in American was set. Lubitsch made the transition to sound directing hits like The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design for Living (1933), and The Merry Widow (1934). For a time he was head of production at Paramount where he became close friends with Carole Lombard. Other classic Lubitsch films include Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo and The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart. In the mid-1940s, he moved to Fox, but his health kept him from directing some of the films he had on his slate. Lubitsch was awarded a Special Academy Award for his “25-year contribution to motion pictures” in March of 1947. On November 30, 1947, Lubitsch died of a heart attack at the age of 55.

Gene Tierney (1920 – 1991) was an American actress. Tierney got her start on the stage where she played the ingenue lead in The Male Animal. Tierney made her movie debut in 1940 in The Return of Frank James starring Henry Fonda. She worked steadily in the early 1940s but established herself as a top box office star with Laura (1944). She starred in Leave Her to Heaven the next year which was the biggest hit of the year and Fox’s biggest moneymaking success until The Robe (1953). Other successes for Tierney include Dragonwyck (1946), The Razor’s Edge (1946), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947).

Don Ameche (1908 – 1993) was an American actor on stage and in film. He was also a star on the radio during the early 1930s. He signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox in 1935 and quickly became one of the studio’s top leading men and top box office stars. He was often teamed with fellow Fox stars Alice Faye and Tyrone Power including In Old Chicago (1938) and Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). Ameche was so popular that in two years (1938 and 1939) he had ten films in release. In the 1950s, Ameche starred on Broadway in Silk Stockings (1955-56) and Holiday For Lovers (1957). His career in film in television continued into the 1960s and 1970s. When he was cast in Trading Places (1983) along with fellow movie veteran Ralph Bellamy, Ameche was introduced to a new generation of fans. In 1985 he starred in Cocoon (1985) which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ameche continued acting until his death in 1993 at 85.

Charles Coburn (1877 – 1961) was an American character actor who had a long career on stage and in film. He won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in The More the Merrier (1943) co-starring Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. Coburn’s other classic films include The Lady Eve (1941), Kings Row (1942), The Paradine Case (1947), Monkey Business (1952), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

The film has a dream supporting cast that includes Marjorie Main, Spring Byington, Allyn Joslyn, Eugene Pallette, Signe Hasso, Louis Calhern, and Clara Blandick.

Heaven Can Wait trivia:

  • Lubitsch was originally disappointed with the casting of Don Ameche but changed his mind and was won over by the actor’s dedication to the role and his professionalism.
  • Gene Tierney recalled that during production, “Lubitsch was a tyrant on the set, the most demanding of directors. After one scene, which took from noon until five to get, I was almost in tears from listening to Lubitsch shout at me. The next day I sought him out, looked him in the eye, and said, ‘Mr. Lubitsch, I'm willing to do my best but I just can't go on working on this picture if you're going to keep shouting at me.’ ‘I’m paid to shout at you’, he bellowed. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘and I’m paid to take it - but not enough.’ After a tense pause, Lubitsch broke out laughing. From then on we got along famously.” (From Gene Tierney’s autobiography Self-Portrait.)
  • This was Lubitsch’s only film in Technicolor,
  • Tod Andrews who played Don Ameche and Gene Tierney’s son was only six years younger than Ameche and six years older than Tierney.
  • Gene Tierney realized she was pregnant during the film’s production.
  • The film was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Cinematography, Color.

To watch the film on YouTube, click on the link below.

To join us on Zoom for a discussion on December 8, at 6:30 p.m. Central Time, click the link for details and invitation. When you RSVP you will receive an email and link to the discussion.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do you think Henry was actually unfaithful to Martha?
  2. The picture rests on Ameche’s shoulders; what did you think of his performance as Henry?
  3. Would the film have worked in black and white? What did the Technicolor add to the film?
  4. The film is filled with great character actors; did you have a favorite?
  5. Were there any memorable lines from the film that stuck with you?

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