Even Cads Don’t Deserve Hell: The Moralism of Heaven Can Wait
Heaven Can Wait (dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) begins relatably enough: Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) has a sit down with the Dark Lord Satan and tries to convince the devil to send him to Hell. He believes that he should burn for eternity for the playboy lifestyle he lived while he was on Earth. Thus, we get to watch and enjoy an almost two hour retelling of his life and relationships. It is just one of the many elegant “comedy of manners” pictures that tackled the hardcore moralism and conformism of the era that Lubitsch would produce over his unfortunately curtailed career. The subject and subject matter in Heaven Can Wait make this entry in his filmography one of his most daring and interesting.
Henry does indeed have a checkered past with the women in his life. He is, and this is describing him conservatively, a serial romantic that stole and married the fiancé of his cousin, cheated on said wife, and continued to cheat on her even after he traveled across the country to get her back. Extending even further than the things he is concerned about, he’s a bit an bourgeoisie layabout with little to no concern for anything that happens outside the confines of his congenial bubble. There is no argument that, under the Christian moral set the film is trying to emulate in its depictions, Henry is an immoral man.
But that is not the argument Lubitsch is trying to counter. He is trying to compare the ideas of immorality and evil in a time period where the two were interchangeable. Heaven Can Wait attempts to address the concept of there being a disconnect between the mortal interpretation of Christian morality and what an abstract evaluation of that value set would look like in a tangible sense. Basically, the film questions the idea of judgement before death in a moral set that champions the concept of death being the final judgement.
Admittedly, Heaven Can Wait is not always perfect at doing asking that question. The gender politics are questionable at best and the film ends with His Excellency absolving Henry and sending him to Heaven because he made “the women in his life happy” which, even while acknowledging the film is about not rushing to mortal judgement, feels like the male wish fulfillment version of that ending. Still, the idea of even questioning the religious moralism of the time period is a commendable achievement, especially in the midst of the Hay’s Code. Asking these kind of questions makes Lubitsch a trailblazer for the artists who would use his influence and take his ideas a step further. His impact has continued in the decades following his early demise and will continue as we move farther and farther away from the release of his films.
Heaven Can Wait is streaming on all major VOD platforms.