Here Comes Mr. Jordan - 1941
With a consideration of Heaven Can Wait, and Angel on My Shoulder
An urgency pervades life-after-death movies of the 1940s, and this is probably the result of the catastrophe of World War II following so closely on the heals of the economic depression that was afflicting a large part of the globe. War was already being fought (and being lost by the Allies) in Europe and in Asia, and the United States was soon to join the fray when Pearl Harbor was bombed in December, 1941. But that event was still a few months in the future when this Alexander Hall directed fantasy came out toward the end of the summer of 1941, but the sense that life can suddenly be cut short, and the worry about what follows next, was impacting popular entertainment, and is the central part of this movie about a heavenly screw-up that leaves boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) temporarily without a body to house his immortal soul.
The supernatural elements of Here Comes Mr. Jordan remind me of director Frank Borzage's one year earlier Strange Cargo of 1940, which contains a peculiar supernatural tone that lightly touched upon ideas of "eternity" but kept (almost) everything defined in modern 20th century terms. The sometimes creepy Strange Cargo had a seriousness in the undertone (a seriousness much more blatant in a later installment of this kind of film, Capra's It's A Wonderful Life of 1946) that isn't really present in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which is a comedy combined with a phantasy with some screwball elements sprinkled over it, and with a Hollywood confidence that a good script can fix the malfunctioning of Heaven and get boxer Pendleton "a shot at the title."
We're guided by the charming, angelic Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) who tells us that "everything's going to be okay," steadily working out the kinks of Pendleton's dilemma by dropping him into the middle of a murder at the home of the wealthy Mr. Farnsworth, who, to the astonishment of his murderers (his wife and her adulterous partner) who drowned him in a bath tub, discover suddenly he's back alive and he has a whole new attitude toward life. This is courtesy of the free-riding Joe Pendleton who needed a fit body to train with that will be "in the pink," and ready to fight for the championship, a goal that the resurrected Mr. Pendleton is pursuing with single-mindedly resolve. That soon gets wrapped up in a mission of vindication against the past crooked dealings of the dead man whose body he is using, and the murderous double-dealing of that man's wife (Rita Johnson) and the treachery of the dead man's secretary (John Emery).
Montgomery portrays Pendleton as well-meaning but always talking like a Hollywood version of a boxer, meaning we hear a limited vocabulary and thickened speaking style indicating a slightly punched-up brain. As a moral agent righting wrongs it takes a little work to get Pendleton interested, and that happens when Evelyn Keyes (as Bette Logan) needs the new occupant of Farnsworth's body to straighten out a swindle masterminded by the original Farnsworth that has left Bette's father holding the bag and in jail for securities fraud.
Claude Rains did a reverse of this role as angelic coordinator in Angel on My Shoulder (1946) where he played a Satanic figure who drops a dead gangster (played by Paul Muni) into the unoccupied body of a highly respected judge, hoping that the combination of a gangster with no ethics and the power of a judge would spread ruin and disaster (it doesn't work out that way). While Here Comes Mr. Jordan is occupied with the triumph of the well-intentioned and how heavenly goofs are fixable (with the right script at hand), Angel on My Shoulder is distinct in that it gives us an image of the afterlife where there is an active, fiery Hell getting filled with not only gangsters, but ordinary looking citizens who mutter "my mother always said I would end up here." The difference of the two films attitude seems to be explained by the imposition of World War II between their release dates, and Claude Rains smiling figure of help in the earlier film has decayed into a smiling, but frustrated evil being trying to crush the human race by maneuvering to have their worst intentions run amok through the corruption of institutions and authority.
Muni's self-absorbed gangster who "see's the light" (though that doesn't keep him from being sent back to the flames, an unexpected twist) is at odds to the sweet niceness of Pendleton, who shows outrage at finding corruption in the championship boxing ring that he's been working so hard to reach. In Muni's case, the gangster Eddie Kagle expects to find corruption wherever he goes, and his moment of outrage isn't sharp or climatic, just sad and introspective when he realizes he himself is the culprit who mangled his life.
In Ernst Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (1943), the premise is changed again, which features another character with (generally speaking) good intentions (Don Ameche) who is at the gates to the flames of eternity and must explain how he got there. Is Ameche an adulterer? Is his constant attention to women not his wife a voyeuristic exercise or is he more hands on? Lubitsch's production doesn't wrestle with morality, but just the simplicity of right-and-wrong, and comes out with the judgement that it'd be wrong to send anyone this well-mannered and well-dressed to perdition. While Here Comes Mr Jordan and Angel on My Shoulder show a clear progression of pre-and-post World War II Hollywood America trying to come to grips with the idea of even cartoon evil, Heaven Can Wait dodges the issue entirely while spanning seventy years of history and discovers good style as a far more eternal value. Aside from Laird Cregar (as "His Excellency") expressing gravitas on the screen, this Lubitsch movie is more of an inoculation than a comic meditation on serious things, completely hamstrung by having to somehow promote an adulterous hero to the Heavenly Realm (but Samson Raphaelson's screenplay gets the job done.)
As a parody of the 1941 Claude Rains movie, Angel on My Shoulder seems to work almost everything in reverse, with the angry, mean-spirited gangster now cloaked as a respected judge and in charge of legal power and ruling over a courtroom, but then getting stunned into clear-thinking by seeing the affects on society (and there's another pretty girl to help the anti-hero see what's right, this time Anne Baxter). By itself, though, Angel on My Shoulder is a plea for reform, patience, and to ignore the voice of The Devil advising there's an easier, self-centered way to goals. In this, the distance between Muni's movie and that of Lubitsch's and Alexander Hall's is immense, since Muni's movie seems to really mean what it's saying (like Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo).
All of these films, including Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, channel theology and a sense of the eternal through twentieth century sensibilities, and in a more comical way (if we don't include Borzage's movie) find that bureaucracy is everywhere, and that means screw-ups will soon follow.
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From former screen legends who have faded into obscurity to new revelations about the biggest movie stars, Valderrama unearths the most fascinating little-known tales from the birth of Hollywood through its Golden Age.
Winner of the 2020 Peter C. Rollins Book Award
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Named a 2019 Richard Wall Memorial Award Finalist by the Theatre Library Association
Original Page August 2021