The Ballad of Martha and Henry, or Heaven Can Wait (1943)

When I think of Ernst Lubitsch, I think of dreamy black and white creations, with a twinkly-eyed Maurice Chevalier seductively singing, lovers running around and trying to get their act together, all of it handled with a light touch and a feeling that love is the greatest game in the world. Who wouldn't want to live in a universe run by Lubitsch? I'll admit I'm not a connoisseur of the director's works -- they haven't been as readily available to me as I would like -- but I'm a reader and so I've conjured up ideas of what a definite Lubitsch film is. That's why Heaven Can Wait threw me for a bit of a loop. Tender, devastating, and rendered in stunning Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait is a film that I never expected.

Since we're all friends here, I'll be honest with you... I just wanted to see two of my favorite actors, Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. That's what fueled my late-night decision to buy the DVD during an exciting Criterion online sale, a sale that came at the height of my Ameche fever, a very real medical condition. The plot of the movie is unbelievably simple: after years of chasing women despite being happily married to the beautiful Martha (Tierney), Henry Van Cleve (Ameche) tells his story to the Devil (Laird Cregar) to make his case for spending eternity in Hell. What follows is a string of vignettes that give you glimpses into Henry's life, from birth to death, all of them illustrating that maybe Henry doesn't belong in Hell like he thinks he does.

If I could only pick one word to describe the film, it would have to be "nostalgic." We're taken through 70 years of a man's life, all with a certain kind of rosy tint. The credits tell us this right away, "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" playing while cross-stitched words go by. One of HCW's biggest surprises is that it doesn't indulge in historical markers, at least not in the way we've come to expect. Henry's life begins in 1872 and ends in 1942, yet no one mentions WWI, the stock market crash, or WWII. There are no flappers, no Prohibition, nothing.
The Van Cleves stay wealthy and happy, and it gives the effect of timelessness while also putting them in their own little bubble. Deaths happen in the family, but they occur off-screen and so we never know who is going to suddenly disappear. One scene, Grandma (Clara Blandick) is there, and then minutes later, Henry's mother (Spring Byington) will say "Oh, I'm glad Grandma didn't live to see this day, may she rest in peace!" A little bit later, Grandpa (Charles Coburn) develops a cough and soon enough, he's gone as well. It really is like you're dropping in on someone's life, as if every ten years you go "Let's see what Henry's up to."


is divided into unofficial segments, each one happening on Henry's birthday. The passage of time is marked by the house's interiors changing and gradual altering to the characters' appearances. One clever montage moves the story ahead four years just by showing four different birthday cakes, each more elaborate than the last, as well as four different ties Henry got as presents. What I love about this structure is that October 26th isn't just Henry's birthday, but also his and Martha's wedding anniversary. While it's not commented on as much as his birthday is, it's important to remember because it signifies that although the film may be about Henry's life, Martha is a huge part of it. Indeed, Henry admits that marrying her was the most worthwhile thing he ever did.

After a while, all of these birthdays begin to depress Henry. For a man who has spent most of his life trading on his looks and magnetism, getting older isn't welcome. Near his 51st birthday, it appears that his womanizing hasn't let up -- he eyes a Ziegfeld Follies dancer named Peggy Nash (Helene Reynolds), sending her flowers and a note before visiting her at her apartment. Peggy's enthusiasm over his "quaint" letter and old-fashioned charm makes Henry wince, and when she guesses his age correctly on the first try, it's all too clear that this guy is mourning his youth. But then comes a twist: Henry isn't trying to have an affair with this woman. He's heard that she's been going out with his son (Tod Andrews), and having known her type since before she was born, he offers her money to leave Jack alone, money she happily takes.

Just like the off-screen deaths, Henry's intimate exploits are never shown -- no women are displayed and no names are given. The more I watch HCW, the more I start to wonder if Henry actually has as many affairs as we're led to believe. First of all, he adores his wife, he's absolutely bonkers over her, so the affairs are clearly only physical, a boost to Henry's ego more than anything else. Ever since he was born, he was spoiled, with his father (Louis Calhern) handing him $100 anytime he asks and his mother annoyingly crying every time she senses something is wrong with her little boy.
So, are these affairs real, or just harmless flirtations that he inflates into something else to glorify himself as a Casanova? I think you'll have to see the film yourself and make your own interpretation. Any way you slice it,  Henry's guilt over his indiscretions is the driving force behind the plot. Claiming that his "whole life was one long misdemeanor," he's convinced he deserves to be in Hell despite actually being a decent guy. He's not malicious or crude, and he doesn't purposely want to hurt Martha. He may be a bit delusional at times, but Martha makes sure he checks himself before he totally buys into his own silliness.
Telling the Devil, "I have no allusions. I know the life I lived," I find myself always going, "Do you, Henry?" Ameche's dual characters in That Night in Rio were more sexually voracious than this guy, a surprise when you consider how badly Henry feels about his past. By not showing us these supposed affairs, it strengthens the audience's belief that Henry doesn't belong in Hell at all, that he's just a guy who made some mistakes and doesn't need to be eternally crucified for them. The Devil's eventual rejection of him is the screenplay saying, "See? Henry isn't so bad!"

The decision to keep Henry's flirtations away from the viewer's eyes is an interesting one for me because it goes against what I've seen previously in Lubitsch films. In other words: sex. Whether it's Jeannette MacDonald walking around in slinky lingerie or the premise of Design for Living, Lubitsch was a master at showing us sophisticated sex. In comparison, HCW looks almost wholesome. This probably is a result of the Production Code, and I'd have to do further digging to find out if the original screenplay and/or source material were as clean as the final product.

However, perhaps it's also a sign of the director's growth -- instead of giving us elegant playboys, he focuses on an elegant family. There's still a roaming lover at the center of it all, yet this time the love of a good woman isn't at stake, but rather facing one's own mortality and morality. That's not to say you won't find a few risque moments. The one that raised my eyebrows the most comes relatively early in the film, when Henry is sixteen and portrayed by Dickie Moore. The family employs a Frenchwoman as a maid and tutor for Henry, an idea that the boy hates... at first.
Mademoiselle is probably the biggest person responsible for opening the young Mr. Van Cleve's eyes to the freedom of sex. Panicking that he'll have to marry a girl because he kissed her, Mademoiselle assures Henry that you don't have to marry someone just because of one kiss -- indeed, you can share twenty kisses with her and still not get serious! At one point in their conversation, a brash Henry declares, "I bet you can't guess in a million years what I've got in my pocket!" No, it's not that, although I'm not sure the phallic-looking cigar he's talking about is much better. Some days later, the house is in a tizzy when Henry falls ill, which is actually just his first hangover after a night spent drinking with Mademoiselle, an incident that I'm inferring led to her taking Henry's virginity. That's the raciest that HCW gets, which sounds quite steamy for 1943, but it's really left to the audience's imagination and what vibes they're picking up from the scenes.

Lubitsch, like his protégé Billy Wilder, was fond of using an object and changing its significance as the film went on to demonstrate a character's development (think of Garbo's silly Parisian hat in Ninotchka). For HCW, that object is a book called How to Make Your Husband Happy. Overhearing a gorgeous girl lie on the phone to her mother, Henry is intrigued and follows her to a bookstore where he pretends to be an employee to strike up a conversation with her. Revealing that she's going to be married, the woman wants to buy How to Make Your Husband Happy, a book that Henry thinks is ridiculous. Appalled when she learns that he isn't a clerk after all, the woman storms off,
never to see the lovestruck Henry again (or so she thinks).

Knowing he's found The One, Henry is upset to discover at his birthday bash that the woman he wants is his cousin Albert's fiancee, Martha. Fate, of course, intervenes when a disruptive sneezing fit forces Martha to leave the other guests to get her sneezes under control. Martha's involuntary action ostracizes her from the rest of the stiff crowd and puts her in the study with Henry. Without saying a word, Henry kisses her and it all falls into place.
For most of the film, the book that brought them together is forgotten. The couple has their up's and down's, but for twenty-five years they have a beautiful marriage. Their last scene together is a marvel of understatement, a mirror of that night when they saw each other in the study and decided to elope, only this time they dance instead of running to the nearest justice of the peace. Henry lets us know in voiceover that just a few months later, Martha passed away.

Years go by and Henry is back to his old tricks, staying out all night and flirting with pretty women. Trying to be sneaky, Henry attempts to convince Jack to hire him
a reader, someone who can read books to him since his eyesight is going. It just so happens he knows the perfect woman to do it, too! Jack sees right through the ruse, but Henry pulls out a book to prove to his son that he needs help. And what book does he blindly grab? How to Make Your Husband Happy.

The reveal is a gut punch, to the viewer and to Henry. Martha's presence is intensely felt in this movie, especially after her death, her book reminding Henry that nothing could replace what they had. I may or may not tear up at this moment. Don Ameche does a marvelous job, illuminating a sad wistfulness and vulnerability to an otherwise confident, fun-loving rogue. If I had to pick Ameche's best performance, it would be between this film and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.

Henry and Martha characterize a more modern generation, one that isn't hung up on uptight social graces that require sacrificing what your heart wants in favor of miserable practicality. Martha is only engaged to Albert so she can escape a depressing existence in Kansas, but you know that her gloom would simply be transferred to New York if the marriage happened. Henry, on the other hand, is exciting, unlocking ideas that Martha was probably terrified to act on precisely because it went against the social values she was taught. Knowing each other exactly one day, Henry literally sweeps her off her feet to get eloped, a move that disinherits Martha and estranges her from her family for ten years.

But don't go thinking that means Martha regrets it -- to quote what she tells her parents when they finally reunite, "I'm not sorry and I don't need your forgiveness." And that's not even the best part. Albert has the nerve to tell his ex that her unhappy marriage is her punishment for picking Henry over him, leading Martha to retort "I don't want anybody to get the impression that I've been the victim of ten years of misery -- nothing of the kind. On the contrary, I can say there were moments in my life which few women have been lucky enough to experience." You tell 'em, Martha.

Henry's cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn) is possibly the film's most subtle source of humor. This guy is dorkier than Julius Kelp, let me tell you. HCW has three characters who like to push against propriety: Henry, Martha, and Grandpa. Albert's function is to be a complete contrast to our hero, while also representing the social conventions that our three rebels laugh at. Straitlaced and studious, Henry describes his cousin as "a parent's dream." When he tattletales on Henry and Mademoiselle, Grandpa exacts the best revenge on the little twerp by pouring water on him and then hiding.
When the next scene jumps ahead ten years to the day before Henry's 26th birthday, Albert makes a weak joke and Grandpa, ever reliable, goes "Albert, I'm struggling successfully against the gout, I'm waging a terrific battle with my liver, and I'm holding my own against asthma. But I doubt if I have strength enough to survive your jokes. You're a successful lawyer, let it go at that!" Later, when Martha and Henry run from the party to get married, they leave Albert publicly humiliated. "Thank you for comforting me in my bereavement," he says to the surprised guests, despite absolutely no one doing any such thing. It's a little sad now that I'm typing it out, but in the movie's context, it's quite funny.

Full of lovely, sincere performances, Heaven Can Wait stands on the shoulders of many great character actors, even though they may not stick around as long as we'd like. I enjoy everyone, but let's be real here, Charles Coburn shines as Grandpa. A gruff patriarch who sees through your bullshit, Grandpa is the film's voice of reason. When Martha leaves Henry on their tenth anniversary, Grandpa urges his grandson to go after her, resulting in one of HCW's best moments as the two try to woo her back.
Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette are hilarious as Martha's bickering parents, the Strables, giving the movie a memorable comedy bit when they eat breakfast at opposite ends of a long table and force their butler to send messages to each other despite obviously being within earshot of one another. Really, Main and Pallette make Grandpa look like Mother Teresa, that's how harsh and bitter they are. Of course, being the pros they are, their reunion with Martha is tears-inducing, filled with resentment and tension but quickly giving way to the realization that Martha's their little girl and they can't keep shutting her out.

Being a period piece, HCW has lush set decorations and color palettes that are very easy on the eyes. As I mentioned above, the Van Cleve house gets a makeover every few scenes/decades, and the detail is crazy, from random tchotchkes to shelves filled with books to wallpaper pattern, watching HCW makes you want to pause the film every once in awhile just to kind of take everything in. The costumes are great, too. Everyone is basically assigned their own color and we get to see over time how that changes. For example: Martha and purple. She wears variations of it throughout the film, and as she gets older, the color gets more muted, signifying her youth turning into mature old age. It's a clever and original idea -- I wonder who came up with it, Lubitsch or costume designer Renè Hubert. You're probably tired of my yammering, and I'm a bit exhausted myself, so let's just finish by drooling at the Technicolor, Gene Tierney's face, and the sumptuousness of it all:


This is my entry in the Criterion Blogathon, a massive event that you can't miss. Be kind to the three hosts and check out the rest of the monumental roster here.


  1. I love all these glorious images you've posted. Truly, this is a beautiful film – not to mention a fabulous cast! (I know exactly what you mean re: Ameche Fever.)

    Thanks for joining the Criterion Blogathon with a film that deserves more attention than it receives.

    1. Thanks for having me! Heaven Can Wait is one of those films I expect to have a large following and then find out it kind of doesn't. It really is beautiful, visual-wise and material-wise. Happy to hear you've been a victim of Ameche Fever as well -- he's the best!

  2. Same here, these images are eyepopping, this is a great movie to include out of the Criterions and you really nicely describe its beauty and appeal.Thanks so much for joining in this event!

    1. It's been a pleasure. It was a little intimidating to write about a Lubitsch film because he's so iconic and there are much more people well-versed in his movies than me, but I'm glad I did it. This blogathon is shaping up to be a blast!

  3. Such a droll and delightfully witty film. Plus, as your captures illustrate, simply gorgeous.

  4. Nice to see more than one Lubitsch film taken on in the Blogathon. Great review!

    1. Thank you so much! I'm surprised all of his Criterion movies weren't taken.

  5. I haven't seen this film, but you made a great and interesting portrait of it. I'll make sure to see it!

    1. Thank you! It's such a darling film, and I hope you like it whenever you do see it.

  6. This is a lovely movie! And I have to confess I once suffered from Ameche fever as well.
    I loved Heaven Can Wait, and I believe it is so subtle because Lubitsch was getting more mature - and had censorship behind him. But he knew how to pass his message with all the innuendo and class.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Lubitsch was quite the director. I always love the story Billy Wilder told when he and William Wyler were pallbearers at Lubitsch's funeral. He told Wyler "How sad. No more Lubitsch." Wyler retorted "What's sadder is no more Lubitsch films." He was one of a kind. Thanks for reading!


Post a Comment

You might've missed these popular posts...

Loving and Fighting Furiously: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz

Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners

Announcing the 100 Years of Esther Williams Blogathon!

Announcing the Sixth Annual Doris Day Blogathon!

Bob, Bing, and Dottie take the... Road to Rio (1947)

Esther Williams enthralls in... Dangerous When Wet (1953)

The Fifth Annual Doris Day Blogathon is here!

Fred and Ginger's Cinematic Farewell: The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Ann Sothern and Robert Young can't stop marrying each other in... Lady Be Good (1941)

Announcing the Fifth Doris Day Blogathon!