(director: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriters: from the play Birthday by Lazlo Bus-Fekete/Samson Raphaelson; cinematographer: Edward Cronjager; editor: Dorothy Spencer; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Don Ameche (Henry Van Cleave), Gene Tierney (Martha Strable), Laird Cregar (The Devil), Allyn Joslyn (Albert Van Cleave), Charles Coburn (Grandfather), Clara Blandick (Grandmother Van Cleve), Michael Ames (Jack Van Cleave), Louis Calhern (Randolph Van Cleave), Spring Byington (Bertha Van Cleve), Marjorie Main (Mrs. Strabel), Eugene Pallette (E. F. Strabel), Signe Hasso (Mademoiselle), Helene Reynolds (Peggy Nash); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; Twentieth Century-Fox/Criterion Collection; 1943)

“The charming period piece has more depth in its cheerful depiction of death and breezy satire on society mores than what might be apparent.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The only film made in Technicolor by Ernst Lubitsch (“To Be or Not to Be”/”Trouble in Paradise”/”The Merry Widow”) looks terrific and plays well, offering the noted Lubitsch Touch. It’s based on the play Birthday by Lazlo Bus-Fekete; Samson Raphaelson is the writer.

It’s a sophisticated witty fantasy comedy that tells about a dandy named Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) who wants to enter Hell but first has to convince the Devil, who is addressed as His Excellency (Laird Cregar), that he belongs. Henry begins his tale at his birth in 1892 to a wealthy New York banking family living in a greystone house on prestigious Fifth Avenue. He’s spoiled by his doting mother Bertha (Spring Byington) and stern father Randolph (Louis Calhern), while encouraged to rebel by his spirited grandfather (Charles Coburn) and treated with affection by his grandmother (Clara Blandick). It traces how he got drunk as a teenager with his maid and French tutor (Signe Hasso), which resulted in her dismissal, and how he was a rake during the Gay Nineties.

The story picks up to when Henry is 26 and steals the fiancée, Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney), of his refined goody-goody corporate lawyer cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). They settle into a happy marriage and Henry has a son Jack (Tod Andrews), whom he spoils just as he was. When Jack becomes a young man, dad worries over his son’s involvement with chorus girl Peggy Nash (Helene Reynolds). He visits her and offers $25,000 to leave Jack alone, and she accepts. Later Jack mentions that he has tired of her and has a new girlfriend from Philadelphia. The happy marriage has its rough moments due to his philandering but it lasts for 25 years, until Martha suddenly dies and Henry goes into a funk over his loss. At 70, Henry dies peacefully in his sleep remembering being attended to that night by a beautiful nurse.

After he finishes his story, His Excellency deems Henry unfit for Hell and sends the man who made so many women happy up to Heaven to be with his loved ones.

The charming period piece has more depth in its cheerful depiction of death and breezy satire on society mores than what might be apparent.

REVIEWED ON 7/11/2006 GRADE: B+   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/