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Betsy Sharkey's film pick of the week: Ernst Lubitsch's 'Heaven Can Wait'

July 28, 2010 |  5:50 pm

Heaven Can Wait

I can't help but think the lovely fun of Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 "Heaven Can Wait" was colored by the massive heart attack that nearly felled him at 51 when he was in the midst of finishing the film -- and after a recovery break, he would do just that.

It was the director's first go at color film, and he was careful in his use. If anything, "Heaven Can Wait" may be the most subtle film in his archive. Don Ameche is absolutely charming as the dapper, devious businessman Henry Van Cleve, who finds himself knocking on Hades' door with Satan not at all convinced he should let Henry in. This clever comic contemplation of morality and mortality, with the social issues of the gay '90s in which it is set, turns out to feel very au courant even now. 

Gene Tierney is luminous -- but knowing -- as his beloved wife, Martha. She's not the only woman in his life by a long stretch, but she's the only one who mattered. Indeed, amid all the nonsense, you'll discover a treatise on love and life as heartfelt as it is humor-filled. Besides, Tierney and Ameche are a match made in heaven, whatever Henry's fate....

The film is the first half of Saturday night's double-bill at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's  Bing Theater. The remarkably prescient "Cluny Brown" rounds out the evening. Jennifer Jones is Cluny, a young plumber's assistant determined to make it in a man's world despite the fact that she seems better at turning heads and plumbing hearts than unclogging sinks. It is also the last film that would be solely in Lubitsch's hands. His final film, "That Lady in Ermine," would be finished, after his death at 55, by his friend Otto Preminger.

"Heaven" and "Cluny" are a great way to wrap the museum's monthlong tribute to this early king of comedy. Friday night's a keeper too with "The Marriage Circle," his most commercially successful film ever, a round robin of illicit love affairs, and "So This Is Paris."

So consider this your last call to make Lubitsch part of this summer's big-screen memories. You won't be sorry that you did, but you will be sorry if you don't.

-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: Charles Coburn, Gene Tierney and Don Ameche in Ernst Lubitsch's 1943 "Heaven Can Wait." Credit: Courtesy of LACMA

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