Robert Montgomery Stars in Landmark Comedy About Second Chances
This 1941 classic is among the most romantic films of Hollywood’s Golden Era, a fantasy perhaps hokey by today’s standards, yet charming, heartwarming, and funny as hell.
The film pretty much pioneered the guardian angel sub-genre, and outside of It’s a Wonderful Life, may be the best of the lot. As prizefighter Joe Pendleton, Oscar-nominated Robert Montgomery (real-life father of Elizabeth Montgomery, “Samantha” of TV’s Bewitched) affects a dese-dems-and-dose, blue collar voice at odds with both his usual urbane screen image and real-life reputation as a wealthy, conservative Republican.
Claude Rains Co-Stars as Mr. Jordan
Montgomery’s Joe Pendleton is two weeks away from a title fight he no doubt will win. But he foolishly insists on piloting a plane. Naturally, he crashes. Through the judgment error of an inexperienced supernatural messenger (Edward Everett Horton, in a vintage role), he is sent heavenward when he should have lived another 50 years.
Enter suave Claude Rains as heaven’s gatekeeper, the eponymous Mr. Jordan. Recognizing the mistake, Mr. Jordan sets about to find another body for Joe. But the would-be champion makes it clear he wants his shot at the title, so they embark on an earthbound shopping trip for just the right body.
In a plot contrivance, Joe is temporarily lodged in the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a callous, crooked, ruthless millionaire in the process of being murdered by his scheming wife and assistant.
Evelyn Keyes Plays Love Interest
But the murder is averted and things go haywire for everyone when Joe falls for Bette Logan, the daughter of one of Farnsworth’s business victims. (In a cinematic sleight-of-hand, we always see Joe as he sees himself — looking and sounding just like Robert Montgomery; everyone else in this movie world sees “Farnsworth.”)
Thus begins a wild ride of trying to balance Joe’s need for a permanent body with his unexpected feelings for Bette, played with sincerity by the under-appreciated Evelyn Keyes, best known for a minor role in Gone With the Wind — and, in real life, for being the third of John Huston’s five wives.
The film’s two Oscar victories (of seven nominations) are well deserved — for Original Story (Harry Segall, based on his play Heaven Can Wait) and Best Writing, Screenplay (Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller). What’s intriguing about the story structure is that it’s really a double love story — of Joe and Bette, and of Joe and his befuddled, good-natured manager Max Corkle, played to hilarious effect by one of the screen’s great character actors.
James Gleason: Scene Stealer
James Gleason’s comic timing as Max is a marvel. Whether he’s coming to grips with Joe’s visits to different bodies, or verbally sparring with a suspicious police detective (Donald McBride), the Runyonesque Gleason is flat-out hilarious, while also providing much of the film’s warmth.
That Max and Joe love each other is clear. These are two heterosexual guys, but when Max gently pats Joe’s face in a show of affection, you realize how nicely the film sidesteps Hollywood’s unease back then about portraying male friendships — and how richly human Max Corkle was as a character.
Every romantic comedy has a “balcony scene,” and the most facile and memorable ones never actually include the word “love” as characters reveal their feelings for one another. Joe’s balcony scene with Bette is among the best in American cinema and provides the set up for a great payoff at the end.
Warren Beatty Remake Film
Warren Beatty adored this movie and remade it as Heaven Can Wait, restoring the original title of Harry Segall’s stage play. (Don’t confuse it with the unrelated 1943 Don Ameche film comedy Heaven Can Wait.)
Beatty’s excellent film, with Julie Christie in the Evelyn Keyes role, was among the best comedies of the 70s — but owes much of its charm to the chassis provided by the 1941 model. Chris Rock starred in yet another remake, Down to Earth, in 2001.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan was nominated for Best Picture, losing to How Green Was My Valley, and director Alexander Hall also was nominated, losing to Valley‘s John Ford.
The film’s New York premiere came four months to the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when the world changed forever and sentimental movies like this would go out of style for many years.