Thursday 1 November 2018

Retro Hugos - Dramatic Presentation Long Form

There was a flourishing of low-budget science fiction and horror movies in 1943, offering American audiences an escape from the Second World War. Next summer in Dublin, these works will be vying for the Retro Hugo for 1944.

In 1943, Bela Lugosi fought The Ape Man, and Turhan Bey fought The Mad Ghoul. Flesh and Fantasy offered
While it was a success
when released in 1943,
The Batman does not
hold up well, in part
because of its racism.
(Image via HuffingtonPost)
three linked stories of the supernatural. Claude Rains thrilled audiences with his iconic turn as the Phantom of the Opera (a movie that interestingly featured sci-fi legend Fritz Leiber’s dad in a major role.)

Lon Cheney Jr. and Bela Lugosi went toe-to-toe in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman — which could reasonably be described as paving the way for the Marvel cinematic universe by being the first shared-universe movie. 

The year also offered moviegoers the first cinematic adventure of Batman.

Each of these movies has its charms, some offered a pulpish enthusiasm for the material, others were stunning in their set design and camera work. But one cinematic work of science fiction or fantasy towers above all of them: Ernst Lubitsch’s late-period romantic comedy Heaven Can Wait (not to be confused with the 1978 Warren Beatty movie of the same name).

A Light Touch

Lubitsch is probably best known for his anti-Hitler movie To Be Or Not To Be, and the Jimmy Stewart vehicle The Shop Around The Corner, the latter of which was named by the American Film Institute (AFI) as one of the 100 all-time greatest movies, and was remade in 1998 as You’ve Got Mail.

As a director, Lubitsch used longer takes and camera motions that appear simple, but upon examination the observant viewer sees the complexity hidden by their elegance. He is in fine form with Heaven Can Wait.

Simultaneously, a morality play and a love story, Heaven Can Wait features Don Ameche as Henry, a
Don Ameche (left) and Laird Cregar
give possibly the best performances
of their careers in Heaven Can Wait.
(Image via ScottRollins
recently deceased man who is penitent for the life he led on Earth. Certain of his fate, he visits the devil (Laird Cregar) and recounts his life story. The devil has high standards for damnation, and wants to fully assess Henry’s HELLigibility.

Most of the story is told in the form of flashbacks to Henry’s life, from his libidinous youth through his unfaithful years of marriage. But despite his infidelities, the movie makes it clear that Henry and his wife Martha (Gene Tierney) share a love that endures.

Strong structure

The parenthetical narrative structure is strengthened by a tight three-acts that – while edited in a way that may seem ponderous to some modern viewers – makes it highly watchable. Rather than being overtly moralistic, writer Samson Raphaelson uses a light touch.

There’s a subtlety to Raphaelson’s wit that’s delivered almost perfectly by the cast. First-rate lines like “Here was a girl lying to her mother. Naturally that girl interested me at once,” and “Sometimes it looks as if the whole world is coming to Hell,” could easily have been ruined by ham-handed delivery. Instead, these jokes land lightly enough to almost be missed.

It's interesting to note how many pictures in the mid-40s were about the afterlife, heaven, and hell:
Ernst Lubitsch is one of the best
comedy directors of the 1940s,
and in 1943, he produced a fine
work of fantasy cinema.
(Image via
among others, there’s The Horn Blows at Midnight, A Matter of Life and Death, Angel on My Shoulder, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan. It might be suggested that this was related to wartime anxieties, much as the Civil War popularized spirit photography, and mediums came into vogue after the First World War.

Heaven Can Wait earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director – losing out to Casablanca in both cases – as well as a nod for cinematography. We’d argue that Laird Cregar’s turn as the devil should also have earned him at least a nod for Supporting Actor.

In its dry comedy, existential musings, and terrific performances, this movie might be seen as a forerunner to last year’s Dramatic Presentation – Short Form winner The Good Place. It is every bit as much of a work of fun fantasy.

There are several other decent works that would be suitable for nomination in the upcoming year’s Retro Hugos. Phantom of the Opera and I Walked With A Zombie would be worthy of recognition, and will make our ballots. But no other science fiction or fantasy movie of 1943 comes close to Heaven Can Wait.

Whether or not you plan to vote on the Retro Hugo Awards next summer, we highly recommend this movie

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