Entry from June 29, 2011

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of five films on the general theme of Heaven. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson websites for details or to register to attend. The series opened on Tuesday, June 28th with a screening of Heaven Can Wait (1943) by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Don Ameche, Gene Tierney and Charles Coburn. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the series in general and this movie as follows.

Welcome to the first of this year’s movie series, co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in the person of Bill Schambra, whom we thank for the use of these splendid facilities. I hope you have all found the popcorn and pizza and other snacks on the tables at the back and that, if you can, you will stick around for a little while after the movie to take part in the discussion that is the standard operating procedure for these film series, which are now in their fifth year. I would also remind you at this time to please turn off your cell-phones and any other electronic noise-makers you may have in your possession.

This year’s series on Heaven begins in Hell. Or at least in Hell’s antechamber as imagined by Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait of 1943. There, the recently deceased but still elegantly turned-out gay-‘90s roué Henry Van Cleve, played by Don Ameche, is asking the splendidly Mephistophelean figure of Laird Cregar, known only as His Excellency, to be admitted. The word “roué” originally meant someone who had been broken upon the wheel, an instrument of torture, and no one is entirely sure how it came to signify an aged womanizer like Henry. But when we first meet him, he is most remarkable for his humility. He has something of the air of one who has indeed been broken, spiritually anyway, upon a wheel. “If you meet our requirements, we’ll be only too glad to accommodate you,” says His Excellency. “Would you be kind enough to mention, for instance, some outstanding crime you’ve committed?”

“Crime?” says Henry. “Well, I’m afraid I can’t think of any. But I can safely say that my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor.” However continuous his misdemeanors they are not, as I think we are meant to realize immediately, going to be enough to qualify Henry for the infernal pit — even though a touch of vanity about her youthful-looking legs is apparently enough to damn forever the boring Mrs Edna Craig (Florence Bates). Or that and the fact that she is boring. For we sense at once that we are in the midst of something like that aristocratic milieu in which, as Edmund Burke said of pre-revolutionary France, vice lost half its evil by losing all its grossness. It makes perfect sense in such a world to think that the only unforgivable sin is a failure of charm and good manners — and taking oneself too seriously.

Ernst Lubitsch, the director of the film and the originator of the famed “Lubitsch touch,” was already a legend in Hollywood at the time Heaven Can Wait was made in 1943, as he remains today, and he collaborated in this film with the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, who wrote several other movies for Lubitsch’s direction including The Shop Around the Corner, which we saw in the second summer film series on love and romance, and Trouble in Paradise. Both of these movies are, like Heaven Can Wait, American adaptations of gently humorous plays of Hungarian provenance which show the traces of their origins in the pre-1914 Habsburg empire with its hierarchical assumptions, aristocratic manners and tolerant, gently humorous approach to human frailty: it’s the world of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Not that Lubitsch was born to such manners himself. The son of a Jewish tailor in Berlin who was a refugee from Russian pogroms, he started in show business while still a teenager, before the First World War — in which he avoided having to serve in the German army on account of his father’s Russian nationality. It was probably under the influence of his mentor, the Austrian Max Reinhardt, that he acquired something of the pre-war Viennese spirit together with the post-war nostalgia for a lost world that he himself could only just have experienced as an adult before it was all swept away by the European conflagration — about which, by the way, there is no more mention in Heaven Can Wait than there is of any other historic event. Obviously Henry Van Cleve’s New York would not have been affected by the war to the same extent that the European capitals were, but its apparent isolation here from events usually considered of world-historical importance is remarkable in a film so closely bound up and in so many ways with cultural history.

That’s one of the things that I like about this movie, the sense it gives us of the passage of time. It was based on a play called “Birthday” and it is Henry’s birthday, October 25th, 1872, which helps us keep track of the movie’s carefully calculated chronology. We know, for instance, that Henry’s 26th birthday is also the day he elopes with Martha, played by Gene Tierney, his cousin’s fiancée, and his 36th is approaching ten years later when he goes to find her at her parents’ house in Kansas after she has left him. Knowing the year is also important. He gets his first real and unforgettable lesson in sexual manners at the age of 15 in 1887 from his French tutor, Mademoiselle (Signe Hasso), who is one of nature’s progressives, someone who believes that she and her enlightened views are “on the right side of history” (to employ a phrase that has been much used in recent years), this merely because she is fortunate enough to be alive, as are we all, at history’s ultimate point.

Of course, Mademoiselle anticipates what was later to be known as the sexual revolution which, at the time the film was made in 1943, meant the sexual revolution of the 1920s. This was in some ways a full-dress rehearsal for the one that we associate with the 1960s and 1970s, but it partly grew out of an even earlier liberalizing period that gave the Gay ‘90s their name. At a time when many of those a little lower in the social hierarchy than the Van Cleves were disposed to think of sin in almost exclusively sexual terms, their social superiors were already learning to think of sexual misbehavior as hardly any sin at all. This was all part of that new and modern way of looking at things that Mademoiselle associates with the year 1887. The outmoded ways of the past, on the other hand, are associated with Henry’s father Randolph, played by Louis Calhern, whose na veté is constantly driven back upon his only moral certainty, which is the need to “Keep a stiff upper lip” — a bit of mockery rather remarkable when you consider that the film came out in wartime.

The other way in which the progressive impulse is flattered in the film is in its portrait of the marriage of the Strables, Henry’s unhappy in-laws played by the great Eugene Pallette (whom you may remember from last year’s My Man Godfrey, in which he played a similar part) and Marjorie Main. To them Henry’s advanced ideas are all part of that New York sophistication of which they are suspicious from the beginning, and their own apparently loveless marriage seems to be intended as an awful warning of what can happen when marriage excludes the kind of romance that Henry stands for in his courtship of Martha — and, alas, elsewhere. Yet the Strables’ behavior toward their wayward daughter when she runs away from Henry suggests more of love and forgiveness than they are prepared to admit to. Maybe there is some of the same behind the unremitting conflict of their marriage.

The downgrading of (at least) male philandering from felony to the “misdemeanor” that Henry calls it could not be quite unconnected with the downgrading, at about the same time and among the same class of people, of hell from a place of terror to something to be joked about, as it is in Heaven Can Wait. That is the position we still find ourselves in today, more or less. I like the formulation of a newspaper columnist on my home-town paper some years ago, definitively disproving (in his own view at least) the existence of hell by writing that “If God were even as nice a guy as I am, he would never send anyone to hell.” Since God as this guy imagined him was the ultimate nice guy, there could be no hell. Q.E.D. Lubitsch is perhaps also casting God in his own image when instead he offers us the mocking verdict of the witty and the urbane: Hell is reserved for the pompous, the self-important the self-righteous, but not those with the manners, the charm, the savoir faire of Henry Van Cleve.

Yet part of that charm lies in the fact that Henry has no very inflated idea of himself, no aristocratic pride or arrogance to offend our sense of even a hypothetical judgment’s proprieties. Henry arrives in the afterlife as the very personification of Jesus’s words in Luke xiv.10: “But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee.” Can such a man be considered a candidate for the eternal lake of fire? The idea is preposterous. The word “worship” in that King James translation, by the way, is an old word for honor, which was as much associated with class as Henry’s perfect manners when he greets the Devil according to protocol as “Your Excellency.” What more could be required for Henry to ascend to heaven via the very up-to-date electric elevator and avoid the trap-door to the everlasting bonfire to which the unlamented Mrs Craig so rapidly descends?

As it happens, something else is required, and that is the redemption offered by his love for Martha who has predeceased him and whose eternal absence in heaven is the greatest of the terrors that the prospect of his own residence in hell has to offer. Martha, unlike us, knows the worst about Henry and loves him anyway. “Oh, Henry,” she says to him, “I know your every move. I know your outraged indignation. I know the poor weeping little boy. I know the misunderstood, strong, silent man, the worn-out lion who is too proud to explain what happened in the jungle last night.” All these adopted personas are his transparent way of concealing from her — well, what, exactly? For clearly, Lubitsch’s and Raphaelson’s purposes can only be accomplished if they remain reticent about what misdemeanors, exactly, their hero is guilty of. It wouldn’t do at all for us to be more censorious about his behavior than his wife is, which would be the danger in letting us know what she, presumably, knows.

Even his youthful indiscretion with Mademoiselle is seen only in terms of their having taken a drop of champagne together, and Henry’s subsequent hangover allows us to suppose, if we want to, that no more than that had happened on their memorable night out. Likewise, Martha’s return to her parents’ house in Kansas is precipitated by Henry’s having bought another bracelet — at a 20th of the cost of the one he has bought her for their anniversary — for someone with whom, so far as we know, he has only taken tea at the Plaza. Even his approach to the exotic dancer Peggy Nash, played by Helene Reynolds, at the age of 50 in 1922, though it is introduced to us as if it were to be a campaign of seduction (“I happened to hear things about Peggy Nash that made me anxious to meet her,” he tells us in voiceover) turns out to be no more than a kind of experiment, and a humiliating one for him, to test the survival into middle age of his own youthful charms as a prelude to offering her money to detach her from his son, Jack (Tod Andrews).

Peggy mocks him as “the great cavalier of the Gay ‘90s” and “a kind of retired Casanova” and associates the courtliness of his addresses to her with “all the quaintness of bygone days.” The passage of time which 25, or 35 years before had been associated with new and exciting possibilities is now and henceforth to be associated with decline and decay and mortality. Lubitsch must have had some sense of being on the turn himself. This was the last movie he was to make in which he was fully in charge and at the height of his powers, and he was making it at 50, the same age Henry is in the deflating scene with Peggy Nash. He suffered a serious heart attack soon after completing the film and was to die after another one only four years later — immediately following an afternoon dalliance with a woman much younger than himself, by the way. Twice divorced, Lubitsch had always been unlucky in love, yet here, like Dante in the Paradiso, he associates his hero’s eternal redemption with the love of an idealized human female.

In this he was like others of the film-makers whose work we will see in the weeks to come as this series continues. Movies, I always think, are more earth-bound than the other arts — if they are an art — because by blowing up the particularities of this material world along with its human inhabitants to several times their actual size, they overwhelm us with a reality from which there is no easy escape except in out-and-out fantasy. The recent computer-assisted vogue for such fantasy — that is, fake reality — may make us forget this, but the bias of the medium towards realism can actually be an advantage in dealing with a subject like the afterlife. It’s always a good thing in dealing with the hypothetical, as even Dante would have recognized, to be able to make it look as much as possible like its real if metaphorical counterparts — such as the magnificent, gleaming but efficiently-run office presided over by His Excellency in the antechamber of hell.

For here, as in next week’s film, Between Two Worlds, we do not get a glimpse of heaven directly. That is left to our imaginations once we have seen — and this is what both films are really about — how we may imagine people are allowed to approach heaven. In both, too, our heroes may look forward to a purgatory-like and merely provisional residence among the outbuildings of the celestial mansions before being admitted to full membership, as it were, among those whom we learn to see as their moral models. One of my favorite Lubitsch sayings is this: “I sometimes make pictures which are not up to my standard, but then it can only be said of a mediocrity that all his work is up to his standard.” The wit and the charm and the sense of class superiority there are joined with the same kind of paradoxical humility, of tolerance and hopeful leniency towards error, that we see in Henry Van Cleve in Heaven Can Wait. That movie, however, is very much up to the Lubitsch standard and, I think you’ll find, unforgettable.

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