Friday, July 25, 2008

Don Ameche

I'm mildly irritated with myself for not having blogged on The Magnificent Dope, a pleasant enough comedy starring Don Ameche as the head of a failing "school for success" who runs a contest to find the ideal candidate for that school, only to find that the candidate (Henry Fonda) has other ideas, teaching everybody else about stopping to smell the roses. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD, so I can't recommend it now. However, it got me to thinking of some of the other movies of the underrated Ameche; specifically, some that are available on DVD. So today, I'll recommend Heaven Can Wait.

In this 1943 comedy, Ameche plays Henry Van Cleve, a wealthy man who's recently died. He gets sent to "the other place", where he meets Satan, wonderfully played by Laird Cregar. Satan is of the impression that Mr. Van Cleve isn't really up to the caliber of misdeeds for people to earn entry into his domain, and it's left to Henry to try to prove why he does indeed belong "down there".

It turns out that Henry is in many ways not much different than any other male lead who populated the screwball comedies of the 1930s and early 1940s (although I wouldn't use the word "screwball" to describe "Heaven Can Wait"; it's more of a romantic comedy). He's mischievous, and somewhat less than faithful, but ultimately a good guy. The movie tells more or less the story of his life, and that of the people closest to him. Ameche is fine as the protagonist, but to be honest, the movie is really worth watching for the supporting cast.

That cast includes the gorgeous Gene Tierney as Mrs. Van Cleve, who loves Henry through thick and thin, having broken off an engagement with her original fiancé (Allyn Joslyn) to marry the impish Henry. Even better is that the movie is in glorious Technicolor, which especially helps in the turn-of-the-century scenes with the young Tierney. True, she's not quite as beautiful as she would be in Leave Her to Heaven Tierney's parents are played by two veteran character actors, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette. Ameche's parents are similary well-played by Louis Calhern and Spring Byington, although it's clear that Henry gets his free-spirited nature from his grandfather, the always wonderful Charles Coburn. Even child star Dickie Moore shows up, playing Henry as a teenager. The direction is superbly handled by Ernst Lubitsch, who makes the movie charming but not cloying; and also touching, without becoming maudlin.

One last caveat: Heaven Can Wait is also the title of a well-known 1978 movie starring Warren Beatty, but the two have nothing to do with each other. The later Heaven Can Wait is a remake, but of the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

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