Heaven Can Wait

Henry spots Martha making a phone call

Here’s the logline that the IMDb is currently using for Heaven Can Wait – “An old roué arrives in Hades to review his life with Satan, who will rule on his eligibility to enter the Underworld.” Fair enough. It’s the line everyone inevitably takes when describing this 1943 movie, which cleverly sells a headline (the supernatural stuff) only to deliver something completely different. Yes, it does start out with Henry Van Cleve arriving in Hell, where the Devil, referred to as His Excellency throughout, refuses to grant Henry entry until he’s heard his story. And that’s the last we’ll see or hear of His Excellency until the dying moments of the film, when … Read more


Madeleine in slinky dress

1936’s Desire is the sort of film Hollywood has always excelled at. A bit of this, that and the other – some fun, some jeopardy, some romance – parcelled up beautifully and sold by attractive people who are looking their best. Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in this case. The best bit actually comes at the outset, when Dietrich is playing two men off against each other by telling each man she’s married to the other. On one side a jeweller (Ernest Cossart), from whom she’s trying to steal a priceless string of pearls. On the other a shrink (Alan Mowbray), who is apparently supposed to be buying the pearls though he knows … Read more


Ninotchka and Count Léon

Because Ninotchka stars Greta Garbo, was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and was written by the great Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, along with Walter Reisch, it tends to get an easy ride when talk turns to the momentous American films of the golden era. It was released in 1939 too, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis, which also helps. If it’s not quite the classic it’s often billed as it’s not far off. Its problem – let’s get the bad stuff out of the way to start with – is that it solves the question it poses early on, leaving its star slightly with nowhere to go. The question: how would a stern, utilitarian Communist react … Read more

The Smiling Lieutenant

Lieutenant Niki and band leader Franzi

Gay – in the old sense – is probably the best way to describe 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, a blithe, smart, quick and gossipy comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch starring Maurice Chevalier as the military man in question. Chevalier, as French as they come and not making the slightest effort to hide it, plays a very Viennese womanising army officer who in very short order meets the love of his life, the violinist leader of a female orchestra, only to end up shanghaied into marrying the princess daughter of a visiting king, after a mix-up over who exactly the lieutenant was smiling at as the royal procession whizzed by. I know, everyday stuff. … Read more

Design for Living

George and Tom and Gilda

One of those pre-Code 1930s comedies that comes wrapped in an aura, Design for Living can’t live up to the sell. It’s not funny, though there is the odd smirk, nor perceptive, unless a comedy about the fickleness of women is what you’re after The aura comes virtue of the boys in the backroom. Noel Coward wrote the original play, then Ben Hecht came in and threw most of that away while working on his screen adaptation, in the process turning Coward’s urbane posh gents into a couple of impetuous workaday types – the Time Out London review called it a “tea cups to beer glasses” transformation, and that’s a neatly pithy way … Read more

Broken Lullaby

Paul Renard in church

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama Broken Lullaby was originally called The Man I Killed, like the Maurice Rostand play it was based on (L’homme que j’ai tué). It turned out to be a title too hard-hitting for the box office and so it was decided to change it. To The Fifth Commandment. Until some bright spark pointed out that “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t always in the number five position in the Commandments. If you’re Jewish or Orthodox, it’s number six, for example. And so, bizarrely, Broken Lullaby is what the movie ended up being called. Both the play and the film are the story of a French soldier who kills a German soldier … Read more

Trouble in Paradise

Lily and Gaston stealing from each other

Trouble in Paradise was Ernst Lubitsch’s favourite of his own films. It’s 83 quick minutes of screwball farce, made in 1932 just as Hollywood was putting its own house in order (before the government stepped in and did it), one of the highlights of the pre-Code era. It’s more sexually risqué than later films, for sure, though that isn’t what got it into trouble when Paramount tried and failed to re-issue it in 1935. Banned for decades, it wasn’t really seen again until the 1960s It’s the story of a conman called Gaston and a thief called Lily who try to swindle/steal each other but instead fall in love. Realising they’re a crack … Read more

To Be or Not to Be

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny

Farcical Nazis. Nearly 30 years before Mel Brooks had a go in The Producers, here’s To Be or Not to Be, in which Ernst Lubitsch lays down the template. The comparisons are not endless, but in one respect 1942’s To Be or Not to Be does mimic The Producers – it’s set in the world of the theatre, itself a good target for comedy, which is where most of the laughs come from for the first chunk of the film. We’re in Poland, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, where a theatrical troupe is putting on nightly shows of Hamlet while rehearsing their next show, an anti-Nazi piece called Gestapo. … Read more

100 Years of… The Loves of Pharaoh

Makeda and Pharaoh

Why this film from 1922 is called The Loves of Pharaoh in English is a bit of a mystery. It’s Das Weib des Pharao – Pharaoh’s Woman (or Wife) – in German and in every other language it was translated into (per the IMDb), the lady in question has been faithfully rendered as wife/woman/love singular. In fact the film was also much messed about with when it first debuted. In Russia Pharaoh was more of a tyrant, in the US there was more of a happy ending, whereas in its native Germany audiences got to see more or less what the director Ernst Lubitsch and writers Norbert Falk and Hanns Kräly had wanted … Read more

The Shop Around the Corner

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in a publicity shot for The Shop Around the Corner

A movie for every day of the year – a good one 24 September CompuServe launches first consumer internet service, 1979 On this day in 1979, after ten years of supplying dial-up computer timesharing to businesses, CompuServe (originally Compu-Serve) started to offer something similar to the great unwashed. The service was called MicroNET and was sold through Radio Shack stores in the USA. It proved more popular than CompuServe had anticipated and by the following year had been renamed CompuServe Information Service. By then consumers could access news stories, stock quotes and weather reports and they could book airline tickets using only their computer. They could also chat in forums and communicate via … Read more