Entry from July 6, 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 continued on Tuesday, July 5th with a screening of Between Two Worlds (1944) by Edward Blatt, starring John Garfield, Eleanor Parker, Paul Henreid and Edmund Gwenn. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about the movie as follows.

Welcome back to those of you were here last week for our screening of Heaven Can Wait, and welcome, too, to those who are here for the first time this year. This week’s film is Between Two Worlds, which is set on a mysterious ocean liner bound for the celestial regions, though most of the passengers don’t know it yet for most of the picture. But before we get to it, I hope you will be patient with me if I return for a moment to last week’s movie, whether you saw it or not, as I want to touch just briefly on the example it provided of Hollywood’s heterodoxy in matters of religion. We’re now so used to assuming that everyone has a right to his own opinions about heaven and hell, as about everything else, that nobody even thought this worth mentioning in the discussion that took place afterwards, but Ernst Lubitsch, the director, and Samson Raphaelson, the screenwriter of Heaven Can Wait, portrayed the chief executive of Hell, known as “His Excellency,” as judging their hero, Henry Van Cleve, and finding him — not wanting enough.

Of course, no orthodox Christian — or Jew for that matter, since both the director and writer were Jewish, as they also are of Between Two Worlds — could accept this as how it works or ever could work. It treats Satan as an agent or functionary of God, or as the proprietor of a rival establishment to His with its own rules as to who may enter and who may not and therefore with the power of Judgment that all monotheistic faiths believe is reserved to God alone. But then we don’t really look to the movies for doctrinal orthodoxy. Whether the Bible is to be understood in the literal or only the figurative sense, the movies certainly belong only to the realm of the figurative. It’s probably better for us to concentrate on the ways in which both these first two films derive their power and their interest from the Christian tradition, since with each of the next three in the series we will be getting farther and farther away from it.

One point of contact with tradition that is shared by Heaven Can Wait and Between Two Worlds and that I mentioned last week is that both give us a portrayal of the afterlife in an oblique way. In neither, that is, do we see either heaven or hell themselves, but only a version of the processes of judgment by which the sheep are separated from the goats. Judgment itself, we are made to realize, implies its own consequences and thus the eternal destinations of those who are being judged. In next week’s film, Stairway to Heaven, we will see a representation of something almost resembling the judgment of the Book of Revelations as an august tribunal of the immortals is called upon to decide in one of two ways the fate of a mortal man, though it is only of his mortal self and not of his immortal soul. The heterodox judgment rendered by the devil in Heaven Can Wait allows Lubitsch to depict the devil as a gentleman, like Henry Van Cleve whom he is called upon to judge in a most gentlemanly fashion — an idea that carries with it a whole freightage of meanings we haven’t got time to go into here.

In Between Two Worlds, directed by Edward Blatt — whose only other directorial credits in the movies (he spent most of his career in TV) were the even more obscure Escape in the Desert of the following year and Smart Woman of 1948 — judgment is apparently back where it belongs, in the hands of God, though we find that it has already been rendered, in most cases, before the judged are even aware that they are dead. The great Sydney Greenstreet as Tim Thompson a Church of England vicar dressed for a tropical parish comes aboard the Heaven-bound ocean liner at the end like a government customs agent, briskly to dispose of the passengers according to their deserts. But the film is at pains to show him not as pronouncing the Almighty’s judgments from on high but merely revealing to the passengers what they already know, or ought to know about their lives and fates. The money quote from this version of Judgment isn’t “thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting” but “you make your heaven and hell for yourselves on earth; you only bring it with you here.”

This bears out what must at the time have sounded like the rather startling pronouncement on heaven and hell that “in a way they’re really the same place” made by the ship’s steward, Scrubby, played by Edmund Gwenn — whom you may recognize as Kris Kringle from Miracle on 34th Street and Mr Bennett from the Greer Garson-Laurence Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice. Only two of the passengers could possibly qualify as being among the damned, Lingley, the industrialist who (it is hinted) is a war profiteer, played by George Coulouris, and the snobbish Mrs Cliveden-Banks (Isobel Elsom). Lingley is taken off the ship on a launch with the ominous warning that “He must suffer as he made others suffer,” though that would seem to suggest that the term of his suffering was not eternity, while Mrs Cliveden-Banks is to live in a castle but utterly alone and unvisited, so she can’t show off her possessions — which sounds more like an eternal punishment, if only because she accepts it with defiance and an unbroken spirit.

Paul Henreid’s Henry Bergner, the despairing concert pianist and Free French veteran — so like his role as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca — also looks as if he’s going to get an eternal sentence, which would be in keeping with traditional Christian belief about suicide, but one more suited to his ambiguous state as one who “took matters into your own hands,” as the Rev. Tim Thompson tells him. All the others appear to be bound for some future felicity, although most, like John Garfield’s tortured journalist, Tom Prior, may have some purgatorial time to do first. This, by the way, is another point of contact with Heaven Can Wait and even, in a very different way, Defending Your Life, which we’ll be showing the week after next. It does bring to mind the reflection of that staunch Protestant C.S. Lewis that those bound for eternal glory would first want to take the time to cleanse themselves of the earthly grime still clinging to them.

Between Two Worlds was based on a play of 1923 titled Outward Bound by Sutton Vane, a British veteran of World War I who had suffered from shell shock and who never wrote anything remotely as successful again. It was filmed under the same title in 1930, but the version we’re going to see was made in 1944. Adapted for the screen by Daniel Fuchs, a well-known novelist of the 1930s who gave up fiction — much to the regret of such fans as Irving Howe and John Updike — for Hollywood, it made a number of significant changes to the original to fit it to its wartime setting, most notably the bomb-blast that kills all but two of the passengers at a stroke. The play and Sutton Vane’s novelization of it in 1928 are very much of their post-World War I period, as Fuchs’s screenplay is of its period. The most striking difference between the two is to be found in the character of Mrs Midget, who in the novel and the play is a sub-Dickensian grotesque whose lower class speech and manners are made fun of but as played in the movie by Sara Allgood, who specialized in Irish mothers as much as Isobel Elsom did in haughty British aristocrats, she is immensely dignified and sympathetic even before we find out who she really is.

Lingley the industrialist is also rather a stock figure of the period. “Business, Mr Lingley?” says Tim Thompson. “Organized thuggery, the way you conducted it.” What do you suppose this shocking indictment could refer to? The movie doesn’t think it worth spelling out, as I suspect people were only too ready to believe in the wickedness of business and businessmen in Hollywood, both in the post-Depression era and since. In the play and the novel, Lingley is a crook and a bankrupt, exposed by his partners to the world and therefore ruined and not still in possession of his fortune as he is here. He’s also a Jew masquerading under an Anglicized name, but the movie understandably leaves that part out. It also doesn’t want to risk exciting any sympathy for him. Its failure to supply any specifics of the supposed sufferings his success has caused others and therefore must suffer now himself suggests that people were more ready in 1944 than they were twenty years earlier to accept at face value a portrait of a crooked and thuggish businessman whose self-made fortune would once have been a matter for admiration.

Likewise, Dennis King’s clergyman who is looking for a new start looks like he is meant to be a reformed snob out of Mrs Cliveden-Banks’s mold. Rather improbably, he is supposed to be heading for America during wartime to meet what we would call a more “diverse” crowd of people than he has been used to in his socially upscale parish back in Britain — though in Sutton Vane’s version he only imagines he’s having a bit of a vacation. His old acquaintance, the Rev. Tim Thompson, conveys to him the Almighty’s approval of his wish to take his faith down-market, to the wretched of the earth — who thus appear to be wretched in heaven as well. What then becomes of the doctrine that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, you may try to work out for yourself. Maybe the despised lower orders in Heaven are the same sort of bourgeois snobs he had ministered to on earth.

But the dominant figures on shipboard are the three Americans, two of whom don’t appear in the play or the novel and one of whom, John Garfield’s Tom Prior, is changed from an alcoholic clerk who has been fired by Lingley to an American journalist who has exposed his evil doings, whatever they may be, and who is going home after having been fired from his paper as a result of Lingley’s influence. There is some mention in the film of Prior’s drinking problem, but we never see him obviously the worse for drink. Fuchs and Blatt don’t make so much of this as Sutton Vane had done twenty years earlier — when he was referred to as (and refers to himself as) a “drunk” and the fact is unambiguously seen as a sign of weakness and poor character. I suspect that the idea of alcoholism as a disease had made some progress in the intervening 20 years, and Prior’s self-loathing in the movie is hinted to be a result of more complex psychological causes which, like Lingley’s crimes, are left unspecified.

The two new characters are the actress Maxine Russell, played by Faye Emerson, a now little-remembered actress who at the time of this movie was about to become (for a couple of years, anyway) the daughter-in-law of FDR, and Pete Musick, a merchant sailor who imagines he is going home to his wife and new-born child, whom he has never met. Pete is played by George Tobias whom you may remember as Gary Cooper’s army buddy from the New York subways in Sergeant York, which we saw in our first series on the American Movie Hero, but whose main claim to fame was as the put-upon husband and neighbor of the Stevenses, Abner Kravitz, on “Bewitched.” Pete’s is a figure of pathos and so his prospective judgment is a bit lacking in interest, but Maxine, meant to be seen as a tramp, prepared to use sex to get what she wants, starts out being as defiant as Mrs Cliveden-Banks but finally appears modest, humble and broken in spirit — a surprise penitent.

There’s one other character who doesn’t appear in the original play and novel, and that’s Mr Cliveden-Banks, played by Gilbert Emery in the movie. Sutton Vane had him already dead, but the film’s wartime expedient of a bomb-blast here allows him to accompany his wife on the journey to the other world only to decide, once they get there, that he has had enough of her and would rather spend eternity with his golfing buddies from South Africa. As someone said of Henry Van Cleve’s too-forgivable womanizing last week, the Deity’s apparent blessing on this version of Paradise smacks a little of male fantasy. It’s also hinted that Mrs Cliveden-Banks’s real sin is not her snobbery but a sexually disreputable past — for which the snobbery may be some kind of compensation mechanism — and her mistreatment of her husband. This also may reflect the more psychological approach to moral matters that was gaining favor during the war years.

But for all the interest of the theme of death and judgment, the primary drama of the film lies in the love story of Paul Henreid’s Henry and Eleanor Parker’s Ann, and the final words of the movie — “There is so much to live for!” — coming as they do after a way over-the-top representation of their mutual devotion, bring whatever religious and eschatological meaning the movie may have firmly back down to earth. This is the confirmation of the idea put to us near the beginning, that we create our own heaven and hell for ourselves with us on earth and bring it with us into the afterlife. More importantly, perhaps, and as we will see in very different ways in all these movies, sexual love is the only real image of transcendent truth that the movies have to work with. That also means that the transcendent part is too likely to be trivialized and sentimentalized, as I think we see happening here and elsewhere in Between Two Worlds.

Still, my purpose in presenting this and the other movie series has been to try to make the case that these flaws of triviality and sentimentality, which the movies have in common with popular entertainments throughout the ages, are not necessarily fatal to their more serious purposes. Like the invisible but forgiving God in the movies themselves, we have to be a bit indulgent towards their shortcomings if we are to get the benefit of their virtues. About what those are there may be some disagreement, which I hope you will stick around after the movie is finished for a bit to discuss, but the principal one must be a version of what it is for all the greatest works of art, namely enough of a representation of reality for us to recognize ourselves and the moral meaning of our own lives in those of the characters. I can still find that in Between Two Worlds, and I hope you can too.

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