Ernst Lubitsch was born unto an incredibly German name, in Germany, at the tail-end of the 19th century. He wound up being one of the most prolific and versatile directors of early Hollywood. He tends to be remembered for movies like ‘To Be or Not to Be’ and ‘Design For Living,’ and these do hold up as great works of cinema. But it was in an unremembered film of his titled ‘Heaven Can Wait’ that best proves his lasting relevance.
It’s the story of a man, now dead, showing up to Hell to be taken in. He tells Satan himself that he was a terrible person, and that, according to everyone else in his life, he now deserves eternal punishment.
The bulk of the movie is watching his life play out, and this format does indeed feel old-fashioned. It reminds us of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and ‘basically any Gregory Peck movie you can think of. But as this fictional life plays out before our eyes, it becomes clear, through the characters and dialogue, that ‘Heaven Can Wait’ maintains a feeling of contemporaneity.
Every cast member falls into one of two categories:
- An overly pompous, yet well-meaning, dope who is oblivious of the way in which the world really works.
- A charming, intelligent, self-aware individual who just ‘gets it.’
The fun is watching the two types fight it out, arguing over their futures, their legacies, their fears, often mocking each other in the process.
It’s easy to find yourself in these scenes, to somehow relate to these very old, very common problems and situations. It’s a lesson in how to cover serious material while simultaneously laughing about it, whether in writing, filmmaking, or just real life.