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Just when did he tell you this? Before or after he was drowned?


Here Comes Mr. Jordan


Heavenly affirmations made for something of a subgenre, if a slim one, during the 1940s. One might put later cases of upbeat continuance during the decade at the door of a post-WWII desire to comfort those who had lost loved ones, although the plots only rarely invoked the same (A Guy Named Joe, eventually remade by the Berg as the stagnant Always). And since the first, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, arrived before America’s entrance into the war, it might simply be that execs saw its success and wanted more of a good thing. Obviously, one’s disposish is crucial to appreciation of such fare, and it might be that the success of remake Heaven Can Wait, amid a cynical decade Hollywood did its best to reflect, was an all-the-shrewder move on Warren Beatty’s part, rationalising that plugging a gap in straightforward spiritual affirmations was something a too jaded audience would lap up.

It’s ironic that Beatty spent so much time deliberating on the fine points of his version – the original was based on Harry Segall’s 1938 play, and Beatty used the play’s title – and finessing the screenplay, since aside from swapping a boxer for a pro-football player and the worthless securities Betty’s father has been imprisoned over for a village due to be evicted to make way for a refinery, he sticks pretty closely to the structure and main plot points. 

Here, Robert Montgomery’s boxer Joe Pendleton temporarily takes over Farnsworth’s body, after a rash move in heaven sees him snatched away from his own before his time, that body also unfortunately cremated before he can return to it. Even tonally, there’s a sense of the broadly likeable but unremarkable about both movies. If push comes to shove, Beatty probably inches ahead in his decision to make the plotters of Bruce Farnsworth’s demise more memorable and overtly comic. John Emery (Farnsworth’s private secretary Tony Abbott) and Rita Johnson (Farnsworth’s wife Julia) are fairly inconspicuous other than their machinations, and the same can’t be said for the vital turns from Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon in those respective roles. 

Evelyn Keyes’ Bette Logan makes as little lasting impact as Julie Christie’s Betty Logan, although here too, Beatty was probably correct to underplay the final scene somewhat. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Joe enters the body of boxer Murdock – who was his prize opponent – and his memory of Joe is soon erased by Mr Jordan (Claude Rains). However, he already laid the seeds for Bette recognising the soul she saw in Farnsworth in another body. Such a “reunion” requires a delicate balance however, so as to ensure Bette doesn’t seem too fickle after just losing her beloved. Beatty leaves it at their going for coffee, but Sidney Buchman and Seton I Miller lay it on a bit thick, establishing in triplicate that Bette is going to end up with Murdock (“People always saying knew someone before, in another existence”).

Otherwise, though, one can quite happily mix and match the elements. Montgomery doesn’t exactly reek of boxer muscle – ironically, since Joe complains of the prospective bodies he’s passed on that there “wasn’t a decent physique in the whole bunch” – but he handles the comedy with aplomb and scores points for a more effective shift in persona from Joe to Murdock than Beatty achieves. Claude Rains exudes elegance from every pore, as would James Mason later (Kael called it a “scatterbrained fantasy” and said of the title role, “slickly hammy Rains gives Mr. Jordan a sinister gloss, as if he were involved in some heavenly racket, like smuggling Chinese” To which I can only respond “Eh?”) James Gleason is every bit as funny as Jack Warden would be later as Max Corkle, Joe’s trainer, so it’s a dead heat there.

Joe/Bruce: So don’t try any funny business. And stay out of my bathroom.

Montgomery’s Joe wins out on longevity; earmarked to expire May 11, 1991, he has three years on Beatty’s (albeit, Montgomery was 37 when the film came out, and Beatty 41 when his did, so that would make the gap even wider, relatively). Joe here has a helpful sax that follows him around everywhere, such that Max can keep track of the actual him (it’s in the Beatty movie too, but not at the end). Joe’s honesty is foregrounded in both, so entirely at odds with big business (his company stock reflecting the same). 

Inspector Williams: (Max is calling about the room for Joe, whom he suspects might be one of those congregated): Who’s Joe?

Max: I don’t know. He could be anybody okay.

Rather than Beatty’s poison, Joe is pilled up and drowned in the bathtub. Likewise, the demise of his final body is more extravagant; Jarrett dies on the field (NOT a heart attack) while Murdock, insanely, is “shot by gamblers from the ringside”. Donald MacBride really goes for it with the double takes as Inspector Williams, brought to his knees by Max’s evident insanity. Both Buck Henry (in the Beatty movie) and Edward Everett Horton strike an appropriately antagonistic note in respect of the over-zealous heavenly messenger who plucks Joe too soon; neither is especially chastened by his error.

With regard to the central conceit, hardened critics seem generally immune to its charms. Kael opined that “There’s too much metaphysical gabbing and a laboured boy-meets-girl romance, but audiences loved this chunk of whimsy”. Because there’s no trusting their tastes. Time Out’s Tom Milne enjoyed the performances but “the comedy of errors… is rather uncomfortably tinged with the fey archness which so often came over Hollywood when envisaging an afterlife”. It’s interesting that Beatty prefaced the remake with the word reincarnation, perhaps as a nod to his crystal-gazing sis and appetites of the time, but Here Comes Mr. Jordan is careful to avoid anything that might allude in that direction, less still walk-ins.

Except that, right off the bat, Joe is offered rebirth, which is as reincarnatory as it gets: “Nothing doing. I’m not going to go through that again”, he avers. It isn’t as if he’s John the Baptist. What is evident in both, though, is that walk-ins don’t happen to souls during their physical lives. You have to be on the way out for such exceptional circumstances to occur. Which means this allies with The Twilight Zone’s The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank but contrasts directly with K-PAX. Also diverging from K-PAX, the walk-in soul is fated to forget its status, instead taking on the mantle of the individual it inhabits, at least at first (memory may come later, and in both cases here, there’s the helping hand of individuals who knew the old personality). It has this much in common with walk-in lore, whereby such souls may become aware that they are other than who they were.

It seems the Breen Office objected to any suggestion of predestination in the picture and requested minor adjustments. It would nevertheless be hard not to take away the notion that everyone has appointed times from Here Comes Mr. Jordan t (which isn’t non-Biblical per se, more that you aren’t generally going to know the day or hour), such that an error is seriously “gumming up the works”. I guess one might dispute the minutiae (the start and end are decreed, but everything in between is up to you), but with lines like “You’ll have everything that’s ordained for you”, it’s difficult to conclude the Breen Office succeeded. When Joe protests that he wants to stay as Farnsworth because he loves Bette, he is told “If that was meant to be, it will be”, and behold. More magnanimous is “eventually, all things work out. There’s a design in everything”. The difference between free will and determinism in such a metaphysical scenario, then, would be “Joe” agreeing at the outset to the “predestined” path, as opposed to having no say in the matter. But then, that’s also where reincarnation would come in.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan, like its remake, was Best Picture Oscar nominated; it had to make do with seven to Heaven Can Wait’s nine, but it had more wins, scoring Best Screenplay and Best Original Story (the latter category, a confusing one, for good reason, only lasted until the mid-50s). Director Hall went on to helm semi-sequel Down to Earth (also the title of the Chris Rock remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan). It seems there really was a proper sequel planned called Hell Bent for Mr. Jordan (they couldn’t get the cast back together), which certainly sounds sparky. It suggests Here Comes Mr. Jordan as retrospectively more irreverent than it is, but if one has to make do instead with “fey archness”, it’s very agreeable fey archness.

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