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Close Encounters of the Angelic Kind: Here Comes Mr. Jordan on Criterion

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By Tony Williams.

Unlike previous DVDs I’ve reviewed, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is my first and highly pleasurable viewing of a film I’d often heard about but never seen. I also missed Warren Beatty’s 1978 re-make Heaven Can Wait, a title change made with that archetypal Hollywood mode of illogical sensibility repeating the familiar title of that earlier 1945 Lubitsch comedy starring Don Ameche. Laird Cregar’s ideal casting as the Devil in Lubitsch paralleled that of Claude Rains in Angel on my Shoulder a year later and Rex Ingram as De Lawd in The Green Pastures (1936) and his Satanic counterpart in Cabin in the Sky (1943). Yet rather than enter what would be a fascinating byway examining the significance of these fascinating thespian dualistic roles, I’ll confine myself to the film that appears to have started the ball rolling.

Starring the underrated Robert Montgomery as working-class boxer Joe Pendleton whose plane crash before a major fight leads not to Poe’s “Premature Burial” but a premature cremation fifty years before his final destination to the heavenly realm, Here Comes Mr. Jordan represents that long departed polished Hollywood production which, if not in the league of those films that sent “la politique des auteurs” into critical orgasmic ecstasy, represents a modest studio production aiming at its own mode of accomplished craftsmanship and never insulting audience intelligence unlike so many of its contemporary high-budget descendants today. In other words it is good satisfying entertainment, the type of film Richard Widmark would have cited against the condescending high art cinematic exclusiveness voiced by Andrei Tarkovsky at the 1983 Telluride Film Festival several decades ago, and, as Fred McMurray sings in The Happiest Millionaire (1967), “What’s wrong with that?” Here Comes Mr. Jordan is quality and not the “mindless entertainment” of past and present. It contains touching subject matter, good performances, and intuitive relevance to an era that sensed that there would soon be more American passengers on that briefly seen heavenly plane in addition to those mentioned as coming from Finland and other European countries.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan presents an amalgamation of generic elements that would be beyond the capabilities of any director today. Merging the supernatural with romantic screwball comedy, tragedy, loss, and poignant fulfillment, it is one of the unheralded achievements of the “genius of the system” cited by Andre Bazin as a corrective to what he saw as the wild excesses of the Cahiers du Cinema group. Directed by the often routine programmer Alexander Hall – described by Dave Kehr as “the guy who got the Columbia projects that Frank Capra turned down” – but often making some accomplished sophisticated comedies and comedic fantasy films, this talent not only contradicts the now outmoded axiom of auteurs only making good films and metteur-en-scenarists never doing any good films but also that all-too-frequent example of how bad directors may occasionally make one or two good films. Hall, of course, can be safely cited rather than Michael Winner but perhaps “the conscience of serious film criticism” of filmint.nu himself may wish to respond?

Hall worked best as a collaborative talent when united with accomplished cinematographers such as Joseph Walker and talented actors such as Robert Montgomery eager to divest himself of his 30s movie tuxedos, “Scarlett’s younger sister” Evelyn Keyes, the suave but sinister Claude Raines, gifted character actor James Gleason, and that beloved “Old Fusspot” Edward Everett Horton.

Here Comes 02In a role turned down by Cary Grant, Robert Montgomery plays boxer-amateur aviator Joe Pendleton whose divine, non-blithe, spirit is snatched from his plane before it crashes by Horton’s apprentice Messenger 7013 eager to leave his assigned location of New Jersey as soon as possible. When the heavenly civil service discovers the error, Joe later enters the body of crooked financier Bruce Farnsworth after the latter’s murder by his wife and lover. Following a series of comedic and romantic misadventures, Joe finally appropriates the body of K.O. Murdock not only fulfilling his destiny as a prizefighter but also regaining his lost sweetheart Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man Farnsworth had cheated and railroaded into prison. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a subject necessitating a light touch and subtle acting to avoid the pitfalls of vulgar screwball comedy and indigestible fantasy treatment. It is a tribute to both director and his repertory company that the film succeeds. Retaining his first bodily presence in the eyes of the viewer while appearing differently for those who knew the deceased in life, Montgomery faces major challenges as an actor but proves himself highly versatile by succeeding in a convincing low-key manner.

Made four months before Pearl Harbor but widely seen after December 7, Here Comes Mr. Jordan became the first of those many “after-life” films that resonated with wartime and immediate post-war audiences such as A Guy Named Joe (1943), Between Two Worlds (1944), Heaven Can Wait, Angel on my Shoulder, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and the partial Columbia remake semi-musical Down to Earth (1947). This last film was also directed by Alexander Hall and reunited Gleason and Horton but with Roland Culver, now playing Mr. Jordan in an era when Brits were not necessarily exclusively equated with villains. The property was later re-made with Warren Beatty in 1978,scripted by Francis Ford Coppola for an abandoned version with Bill Cosby, and last filmed as Down to Earth (2001) with Chris Rock revealing a potential the property had to be both a black and white and color film!

Like its companions this Criterion DVD represents the digital version of a Barnes and Noble classical literary re-publication containing necessary helpful items such as introduction by an eminent academic, historical chronology, endnotes explaining what is now obscure to us, and notes on later film version as in my 2003 edition of E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End. In Criterion’s case we have a helpful liner note introductory essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme, a new conversational essay “Comedy and the Afterlife” involving critic Michael Sragow and director/distributor Michael Schlesinger, a very detailed and informative 1991 audio interview with the late Elizabeth Montgomery in which she discusses her home life and her father’s often neglected achievements as a highly versatile actor and director, and the 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation reuniting Rains, Keyes, and Gleason but with Cary Grant in the role he originally turned down.

As with all Criterion supplements these are valuable in different ways. Although the Sragow-Schlesinger discussion initially appears to evoke that awful 1980s Ebert-Siskel TV show “At the Movies” featuring one critic who disgracefully gained the posthumous honor of a Chicago Film Theater being named after him although he never championed European films, and another whose current reputation as a serious critic remains indefensible and unjustified, this discussion involves two people who know what they are taking about and never engage in jaw-bashing. At least neither mentions Michael Landon’s best-forgotten TV series Highway to Heaven (1984-1989). Elizabeth Montgomery delivers revealing information about her father who came from a rich family that suffered downward mobility leading him to leave college and become self-educated in both acting and the acquisition of knowledge. She refers to her father as being “perhaps more nuanced in acting than is realized today.” She not only cites his performance in Night Must Fall (1937) but also in the little known The Earl of Chicago (1940) as well as his role as producer, director, and host of the 1950-1954 television anthology series Robert Montgomery Presents that reveal other aspects in addition to his commonly known reputation today as a right-winger and HUAC supporter. Father and daughter naturally disagreed on many political issues but it is refreshing to hear a voice from the past suggesting the need for more exploration of an actor often remembered for just They Were Expendable (1945), actor-director of the abortive Lady in the Lake (1947), and the more accomplished Ride a Pink Horse (1947).

Out of all the supplements, the 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of the film is the most revealing since with Cary Grant playing the role originally intended for him, it shows one direction this project could have gone, one not necessarily positive and revealing why Montgomery was the perfect actor for the lead role. Grant’s vocal articulation evokes his performances in previous Hawks screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). Even without the frequent studio audience laughter following lines such as “Be right down” – “She knows he’s dead,” one expects the replacement of that famous line from Grant’s first Hawks comedy  – “I’ll be with you in a minute, Mr. Peabody” with “I’ll be with you in fifty years, Mr. Jordan.” Grant also employs Walter Burns’ expression “Woo!” from His Girl Friday at least twice in this broadcast and he plays Joe like David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby.  It would not have worked on film since Grant rarely played working-class characters, the one exception being a Cockney in Clifford Odets’s None But the Lonely Heart (1944) and he would have been miscast in a film playing an American working-class boxer. The radio version reveals that if Grant had been cast in the film then it would have become too bizarre of a screwball comedy rather than one subtly intermingling different ingredients. Maybe it would have worked if Hawks had directed the film version but one can imagine The Grey Fox of Hollywood shaking his head at the screenplay saying “I can’t envisage how an angel speaks” in the same way that he later commented on not knowing how a Pharaoh talked in Land of the Pharaohs (1955). Jack Hawkins’s British accent was the nearest he got complimented by James Robertson Justice’s Scottish accented slave architect.

Criterion’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan is both a pleasure to watch and listen to, Hollywood professional studio entertainment in the best sense of the word.

Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor of Film International and Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. His collection (co-edited with Esther Yau), Hong Kong Neo-Noir, is currently in post-production with Edinburgh University Press.

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