When Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) dies, he has no delusions about going to Heaven. But before he can go anywhere, he has to explain to the devil why he belongs in Hell. So he starts telling his life story, beginning with his privileged childhood spent living with his parents and doting grandfather (Charles Coburn). As a teenager, his family hires a maid and tutor who helps put him on the path to becoming a real playboy. Just as Henry is about to turn 26, Henry meets Martha (Gene Tierney), the woman of his dreams. The only problem is that she is already engaged to his cousin. However, Martha is more interested in Henry so they elope.
Ten years later, on the morning of Henry’s 36th birthday, Martha tires of him stepping out on her so she leaves. With encouragement from his grandfather, Henry patches things up with her and they elope all over again. Another twenty-five years pass and Henry has settled down, but their son Jack (Tod Andrews) is behaving much like Henry had when he was younger. On the night of their twenty-fifth anniversary, Henry notices Martha hasn’t been feeling well and she dies a short time later.
Without Martha in his life, 60-year-old Henry is back to staying out late and cavorting with women. Jack, on the other hand, has settled down and become a responsible business man. Henry lives to be 70 years old and dies in his bed, under the care of a beautiful nurse. After hearing Henry’s life story, the devil decides that Henry does not belong in Hell, for he has made many people in his life happy.
Considering its cast and director, I went into Heaven Can Wait with very high expectations. For me, this was an example of the adage, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Heaven Can Wait isn’t one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch films, but I’m so fond of Lubitsch that even if one of his movies isn’t a favorite of mine, I still enjoy it very much. Gene Tierney and Don Ameche made a wonderful couple and Charles Coburn was perfectly cast as Henry’s grandfather. The story is very sweet and has a great deal of warmth to it. However, I just didn’t feel like it was quite in the same league as some Lubitsch’s other films like Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, or The Shop Around the Corner. But those are some very lofty standards to live up to and even if Heaven can Wait doesn’t quite reach them, it’s still a pleasure to watch.