Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Director: Alexander Hall
Screenplay: Sidney Buchman & Seton I. Miller (based on the play Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall)
Stars: Robert Montgomery (Joe Pendleton), Evelyn Keyes (Bette Logan), Claude Rains (Mr. Jordan), Rita Johnson (Julia Farnsworth), Edward Everett Horton (Messenger 7013), James Gleason (Max Corkle), John Emery (Tony Abbott), Donald MacBride (Inspector Williams), Don Costello (Lefty), Halliwell Hobbes (Sisk), Benny Rubin (Bugs)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1941
Country: U.S.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Here Comes Mr. JordanIn Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Robert Montgomery stars as Joe Pendleton, a big-hearted, simple, but not necessarily simple-minded pugilist whose single-engine plane takes an unexpected nosedive into the ground, landing him in heaven instead of New York. He’s not happy to be there since he has a title fight scheduled in a few days, and his complaints would go unheard except that he genuinely isn’t supposed to be there. It turns out that his soul was snatched from his body preemptively by a relatively new member of the afterlife’s inefficient staff, a blustering goof known as Messenger 7013 (the incomparably uptight Edward Everett Horton), which means that Joe’s soul should be returned to his body. Unfortunately, by the time this is figured out, his earthly body has already been cremated, so he must find a new one to inhabit, a task that is guided with cultivated calm by the eponymous Mr. Jordan (the incomparably erudite Claude Rains).

The film, which was based on an unproduced play called Heaven Can Wait by Harry Segall, is an amusing paradox of the studio era. It is a romantic comedy predicated on the grim notion of a soul yanked from its earthly body and forced to find a new one to inhabit. This means that whatever physical body he makes his own must be recently deceased, and one of the film’s most intriguingly unsettling scenes finds Joe and Mr. Jordan, invisible to the living, of course, sitting in the vast living room of a wealthy banker who is at that moment being murdered upstairs by his scheming wife and secretary. There is something undeniably queasy, even creepy, about the whole scenario, yet the way Montgomery and Rains play it, it works.

Once Joe is inside the body of the recently deceased, he takes over the man’s life, although he is the same ol’ Joe, which means that he rejects the banker’s corrupt ways and instead refunds millions to investors who have been defrauded by his schemes and exonerates the man who was scapegoated for his misdeeds. It doesn’t hurt that the man’s daughter, Bette (Evelyn Keyes), is both pretty and genuine, and when sparks fly between her and Joe it has a weird subtext given that she is falling in love with a man inside the body of the man who framed her father. But, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is like that, playing so fast and loose with its tonal shifts and narrative logic that you want to stay dialed in just to see where it’s going to go next. It seems to be setting up an impossible situation, with Joe being forced to shift from body to body while supposedly fulfilling what destiny has in store for him, yet it works, partially because it uses the visual conceit of Joe always looking like Robert Montgomery even though everyone else on screen sees him as someone else.

Alexander Hall, a contract director for Columbia who specialized primarily in comedies, juggles the tones and genre shifts with an impressive deftness that makes it feel all of a piece even though, in many ways, it is all over the place. He and cinematographer Joseph Walker, who collaborated with Frank Capra on many of his best known films, including It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), give the film an impressive look on a minimal budget, often using framing and angles to add depth and heft to what might otherwise come off as too stagey (their vision of heaven is profoundly simple and makes excellent use of the aviation theme established with Joe’s ultimately deadly hobby of flying his own plane). It also helps that Hall was working with a diverse cast of notable character actors, including James Gleason (a screenwriter-turned-actor who helped polish some of the film’s brisk, jargon-laden dialogue) as Joe’s wiry, befuddled manager Max Corkle and Donald MacBride, in the film’s broadest comic performance, as an even more befuddled police detective.

When Here Comes Mr. Jordan works, it is largely in spite of the rather convoluted script, which won two Oscars (one for Best Original Story and one for Best Screenplay). The two credited screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller, were both seasoned pros with numerous classics under their belts, and in its best moments the zip of the dialogue matches the outlandishness of the story. There are, however, a few too many holes in the plot, although, to be fair, most of them can be shrugged off in the spirit of whimsical enjoyment (it’s not a theological treatise, after all). One of the more glaring holes—which itself involves a hole—occurs during a climactic boxing match in which one of the boxers is shot in the ring during the fight, and because the script requires that no one notice this, the filmmakers conveniently overlook (and hope that we will, too) the visible physical damage such an act of violence would entail. There is also some confusion as to how, exactly, the whole body-switching mechanism works, but then Montgomery and Rains come on the screen, work their magic, and pretty much all is forgiven.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Video conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger
  • Audio interview from 1991 with actor Elizabeth Montgomery
  • Lux Radio Theatre adaptation of Here Comes Mr. Jordan from 1942
  • Trailer
  • Essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJune 13, 2016

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Here Comes Mr. Jordan makes its high-definition debut on home video via Criterion’s excellent new 2K transfer, which was made from a 35mm preservation fine-grain master positive. The image on the Blu-ray is cleaner, sharper, and has a much more film-like texture than Sony’s 2007 DVD. Contrast and shadow detail are excellent, which really comes into play in some of the film’s night scenes and its more noir-ish moments. The swirling clouds and fog of the heaven sequences betray no artifacting or other problems. Digital restoration has also removed pretty much all signs of wear and tear, leaving it looking about as good as it did in 1941. The lossless PCM monaural track is also very good, giving us a clean, smooth presentation of the often screwball-style dialogue and decent depth in the orchestral score and environmental sound effects.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    There is no audio commentary, but in their 32-minute video conversation, critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger cover all the important issues related to the film, including its production history, the impact of its various contributors, and its long-standing legacy as a popular Hollywood classic. Also on the disc is an audio interview from 1991 with actor Elizabeth Montgomery, who discusses her father, actor Robert Montgomery; the 1942 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation starring Cary Grant (who the studio originally wanted for the role of Joe), Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, and James Gleason; and an original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2016 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)



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