Charles (Clifton Webb) and Arthur (Edmund Gwenn) are an unlikely-named pair of angels who are sent down to earth to fetch a young soul named Item (Gigi Perreau). Item has been hanging around the home of the Boltons, Jeff (Robert Cummings) and Lydia (Joan Bennett), for seven years, waiting to be born. But the show-biz couple are too busy to have a baby–even though Lydia says she is ready to have a child, Jeff insists that they dedicate themselves to the theater and their new play instead.
Charles and Arthur try to convince Item to come back to heaven with them, but she steadfastly refuses, because she has grown to love the Boltons and wants them to be her parents. Charles decides that the best way to convince the Boltons to start a family is to materialize into human form and pose as an “angel investor” to back their new play. Item takes him to the movies to see a Gary Cooper film, The Westerner (1940), and Charles bases his new persona around the actor, taking on a cowpoke accent and claiming to be a sheep rancher from Texas named “Slim Charles.”
Jeff is thrilled by the prospect of finding someone willing to fork over the funds, and he invites Charles to join him and Lydia at their dairy farm in Pennsylvania, which the pair has converted into a summer home. When Charles seems less than willing to write a check for the play, Jeff tells the playwright, Daphne Peters (Joan Blondell), to cozy up to “Slim” and convince him to sign on the dotted line. Charles finds himself enticed by Daphne, and experiences the first stirrings of love. Arthur, who has tagged along to keep an eye on Charles, tells him that falling in love would be the worst thing he could do, and puts him back on track to complete his mission.
In a private moment, Lydia confesses to “Slim” that she thinks her marriage may be over and she regrets never having had a child. Charles convinces her to fight for her marriage, and that she needn’t consult Jeff first if having a baby is what she really wants. Charles and Arthur set the mood for the couple that evening, hoping for the best. But soon enough, trouble arrives in multiple forms: Daphne’s ex-boyfriend, B-movie actor and wannabe gangster Tony Clark (Jack La Rue) arrives to win her back; a former angel investor, Tex Henry (Harry von Zell) arrives, interested in financing the play himself; the IRS gets involved when no record of a “Slim Charles” can be found; more marital tensions build between the Boltons as their anniversary approaches; and Charles finds himself corrupted by some very human temptations as his plot goes off the rails. It’s up to Arthur and Item to remind Charles of who he really is and help him get his plan back on the right track.
For Heaven’s Sake (1950) was adapted from Harry Segall’s 1949 play May We Come In? by writer/director George Seaton. Segall was well-versed in the topic of angels–his play Heaven Can Wait was adapted for film three times, as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Down to Earth (2001), and Segall won an Academy Award for Best Original Story for that first picture. Nor does this film mark Seaton’s first go-round with fantastical or supernatural elements; his screenplay for the perennial Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947) won Seaton the first of two Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay (the second, incidentally, was for his decidedly non-whimsical script for 1954′s The Country Girl).
Clifton Webb was at the height of his immense stardom at the time he made this film. After becoming an almost overnight sensation as viperous Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Webb had reached new heights of stardom with the introduction of Lynn Belvedere, know-it-all extraordinaire, in 1948′s Sitting Pretty. The naturally sarcastic and biting edge that marks those roles works well for him here, too, as the impatient angel who finds himself tempted by the spoils of humanity. Though he’s surrounded by a capable supporting cast (including lovely performances from Joan Bennett and an always cheeky Joan Blondell, as well as a nice turn by Seaton’s former Santa Claus, Edmund Gwenn), Webb is the center of the film, and he carries it with an air of suppressed glee that underlies many of his scenes.
Take, for instance, the sequence in which Charles plays the blues on his harp. As the camera pans around the room, we see all of the decadence to which Charles has aligned himself as a human–cigarettes, booze, glossy-mag photos of beautiful women, a copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary … it’s a veritable den of iniquity. There’s a hilarious double-take by the camera as it passes over a photograph of Marilyn Monroe, stops, and jerks back to bring the picture into frame once more. Then we finally see Charles, clad in a silk dressing gown, plucking his harp and scatting, throwing around slang, and giving himself over to the “musical profanity” (as Arthur calls it) without a care in the world. As he plucks and sighs and hums along to the tune, waving his hands in the air and rolling his eyes in ecstasy, it’s obvious that Webb is having quite a bit of fun in his role (to say the least).
The other highlight of this film is a delightful sequence in which Daphne’s ex-boyfriend, Tony, confronts “Slim” over Daphne’s affections, while Daphne reacts with sarcastic commentary and ample eye rolling. It’s a bit of a “meta” moment: the actors are playing characters who are themselves playing roles and maintaining a certain facade within the movie, with Charles (the angel) playing the Western hero, and Tony (the B-movie actor) portraying the hardened gangster. The scene is an entertaining mash-up of genre cliches and hackneyed impersonations:
Charles: “I wouldn’t try to molest the little lady if I was you.”
Tony: “Out of my way, stupid.”
Charles: “When you say that, stranger, smile.”
Tony: “If you wanna collect your old age pension, you better not start nothing, see?”
Charles: “Now, I ain’t a-looking for trouble, stranger, but if trouble comes a-looking for me, I won’t be hard to find.”
Tony: “Tough, huh?”
Charles: “When I’m riled.”
Daphne (mockingly): “Yeah!”
As if the dialogue isn’t perfect enough, the staging of this scene is hilarious. The two men, clad in their respective cliched garments–Charles in a plaid shirt, Tony in a suit and fedora–get right in one another’s faces. Tony hulks menacingly and pulls a knife, while Charles puffs out his chest and nonchalantly rolls a cigarette. Tony threatens to cut a button off Charles’ shirt, and Charles, forgetting all angelic decorum, blows the tobacco in Tony’s face and decks him. Daphne is thrilled–”Beautiful, Slim! Gary Cooper couldn’t have done it any better”–and Charles stands tall, a satisfied smirk on his face as he hitches up his pants and tosses her a wink. Beautiful, indeed.
All in all, For Heaven’s Sake is a delightful entry in the “supernatural fantasy” genre that found such popularity in the 1940s. Like many of its brethren, this film succumbs to sentiment in the end–almost cloyingly so–as Charles finds redemption and Item’s dream comes true. Still, despite the mushiness of the ending, the story leading up to that inevitably sappy finale is an entertaining one, and the film is well worth a viewing or two, especially for Clifton Webb fans. I wouldn’t call this his best role, but as a cinematic brother to Webb’s far superior Mr. Belvedere, Charles the angel is undeniably appealing.