Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Reviewed in July 2009
Director: Alexander Hall. Cast: Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason, Rita Johnson, John Emery, Halliwell Hobbes, Don Costello, Donald MacBride. Screenplay: Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller (based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall).

Photo © 1941 Columbia Pictures
In one of those stupid-charming scenes that has catalyzed the plot of many a wonderful Hollywood film, Robert Montgomery's Joe Pendleton gets himself into some lethal trouble by trying to play his saxophone (badly) while simultaneously flying his private plane to the site of his next prizefight. The film is too fond of the character to blame him for the accident—some fraying steel cable, not the distracting sax, is what makes the plane go down—which marks the first but hardly the last occasion when Here Comes Mr. Jordan opts to protect instead of complicating its characters or to pile on one more story detail than it really needs. But, thank goodness, Mr. Jordan has the right kind of love for itself: it isn't self-glorifying or self-fetishizing so much as it is contagiously warm toward its characters and besotted with its tenderly ambitious script, which marries a screwball comedy to a melancholy romance, with some extra DNA from a metaphysical fable and a Capraesque anti-corporate pageant spliced in for good measure. The short version of the plot, if you don't know from having already seen the remakes that roll around every thirty years, is that Joe's untimely death truly is untimely: deputy archangel 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) made a mistake snatching Joe's soul out of his body just before the impact of the crash, which Mr. Jordan, the urbane and unitarian cosmic overseer played by Claude Rains, decrees that he would have survived. Hunting for another body to squish Joe back into, the celestial puppeteers identify one Mr. Farnsworth, a crooked inside-trader who's just nearly been offed by his even more wicked wife and her lover. Soon enough we have morbid farce as the adulterers see their drowned victim saunter back into the parlor, and tentative love as Evelyn Keyes' Bette Logan, the daughter of a man that Farnsworth sold out for his own crimes, comes pleading for an apology or a redemptive act. All the while, Joe can't wait to ditch the boardroom set and battle back to that championship belt, which goes over about as easily as John Malkovich becoming a puppeteer, especially since his wiry chum of a manager (James Gleason) has to be talked back into training an old friend he doesn't recognize, and who dialogues frequently with angelic personages that nobody else can see. I guess that Claude Rains just loved playing invisible.

The Jordan script connives as well as it can to explain and even comically profit from the odd conceit that all of the different bodies that Joe hops into all look exactly like Robert Montgomery. One senses, as one does at a few levels of the film, that an even cleverer set of filmmakers might have figured out a way to exploit the surface incongruity of these successive alter egos with a bit more imagination, and perhaps with an even spryer actor than Robert Montgomery. But then Montgomery, limited though he may be as a purveyor of nuance and grace notes, turns out to be a subtly spiffy comedian and a welcome font of romantic earnestness and gruff but gentle pining, especially in and toward his closing scenes with Keyes. And he does throw in a few physical and vocal shifts that keep his onscreen personas proficiently differentiable. (If you're following my hints, the moneybags isn't the last stop in Joe's body-hopping picaresque.) Admirable though the performance is, it isn't the bedrock on which the film's success is founded, but I'm not sure how to articulate that bedrock. Is it a travesty of analytical integrity to say that frankly, somehow, the film radiates an enjoyment of its own creative and twisty premise, its convening of tart, flavorful character actors in appealing roles, its deeply uncynical and marvelously undated sympathy for the foibles of its characters, from the numinous messenger who bungles the harvesting of souls to the billionaire who wishes instead to be a boxing champ—even in some way to the perplexed would-be killers who can't figure out what they did wrong? There's a fleetness to the editing and to the story's momentum as well as a handsome, even debonair polish to the photography that all keep the enterprise humming. If a more profound director than Hall were at the helm, I'm sure we'd get more comedy and idiosyncrasy from the second- and third-tier characters: how Howard Hawks would have relished and poked and elevated them! But Hall's tender, elegant competence proves winning nonetheless because it isn't totally factory-processed. He hasn't asked his team to give Mr. Jordan unreasonable shine or ostentatious effects, and he doesn't overscore or underline when he doesn't need to. The story, for all of its fabulous conceits, seems always to be telling itself with a wink and a smile, which even the biggest sucker can usually distinguish from the heavy, self-loving smirk that often weighs down the Beatty version. The finale manages a sweet-sad resolution better than most movies, to say nothing of the fact that Mr. Jordan's avoidance of an utterly madcap or aggressively peppy conclusion is a welcome choice in itself. The technique isn't stunning and the film isn't brilliant, but the comedy is poignant, generous, and elegant, a notoriously difficult hat-trick even at the height of classic Hollywood, and so I tip my hat right back to Mr. Jordan. Grade: B+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Alexander Hall
Best Actor: Robert Montgomery
Best Supporting Actor: James Gleason
Best Original Story: Harry Segall
Best Screenplay: Sidney Buchman & Seton I. Miller
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Joseph Walker

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