Alexander Hall’s thoroughly delightful ‘heavenly’ comedy, a Capra-esque tale of a deceased boxer who’s given a second chance at life by his angel/mentor Mr. Jordan by being able to inhabit the bodies of other recently deceased persons, is perhaps most famous for its notable remake as Warren Beatty’s ‘Heaven Can Wait’. But as produced under the studio system (Columbia), Mr. Jordan represents that unmistakable pre-war Hollywood magical combination of swift screwball comedy, dry black humour and high concept fantasy.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) dir. Alexander Hall
Starring: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, Rita Johnson
By Alan Bacchus
Robert Montgomery is perhaps the most unlikely actor to play a boxing contender, and yet this is how he’s established in the opening moments of the film. In fact, he’s not only a boxer, but an amateur pilot and saxophone player who carries his sax around everywhere he goes. This strange eccentricity is what attracts us to Joe Pendleton, a likeable hero who tragically dies in a plane accident. When his spirit is resurrected by an angel, he’s given a second chance to go back to the physical world instead of the heavenly one. But Joe’s body has been cremated by his manager Pop Corkle. Thus, here comes Mr. Jordan (Rains), a heavenly fixer of sorts who steps in to offer Joe the option of inhabiting the body of deceased business man Bruce Farnsworth, recently murdered in his home by his wife and business colleague.
Strange it is to title a film based on a minor character who is not the lead, but it’s testament to Claude Rains’ marvelous turn as the amiable angel. Rains’ soothing indistinctly accented bourgeois demeanor elevates his performance and his character to level of Montgomery’s. Rains had even yet to play his most famous role (in Casablanca), but perhaps Mr. Jordan is the finest demonstration of his unique character-acting skills.
As written by the original playwright and it’s screen adapters (Sidney Buchman and Seton Miller), the plotting of Pendleton’s new lot in life is as eccentric as the main character. They take care to make clear to the audience the rules of their interaction. Joe looks like Farnsworth to the other characters, but to the audience it’s Joe/Montgomery. Joe can talk to Mr. Jordan, but no one else can see him. Mr. Jordan can move Joe to another body when he likes, but it’s has to be recently deceased (and of course, there must be a body).
The screwball plotting is centred around Joe’s confused manager Corkle, who becomes privy to Pendleton and Jordan’s ploys. Corkle just can’t wrap his head around the body switching and he spends most of the film is a state of heightened delirium.
The underlying at the heart of this picture is fate and the romance of the soul even when one leaves the body. Farnsworth’s story of redemption, thanks to Pendleton’s engineering, from nefarious investor to righteous man of the people, is the stuff of the Capra’s social-conscious pictures (You Can’t Take it With You, Meet John Doe, It’s a Wonderful Life). This arc nicely dovetails from the romantic story of Joe’s attraction to Miss Logan (Keyes) one of Farnsworth’s financial victims. Even though Joe’s interactions of Logan would be short-lived, they would prove not to be fleeting, when the fate of the attraction transcends the physical body of Farnsworth and the pair meet in the future within Joe’s newly selected body.
The production value of the picture, as expected, meets the level of quality of a major studio picture. We can even pick out some inventive deep focus photography from cinematographer Joseph Walker. The design of the Farnsworth house where much of the action takes place is designed with a polished grandeur which befits the heavenly story. There’s even a terrific boxing sequence, which may have even influenced the look of some of Scorsese’s Raging Bull’s fight sequences.
'Here Comes Mr. Jordan' is available on Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection