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Film Friday: "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941)

When I saw this film for the first time a few days ago, I found out it was one of the ten Best Picture nominees at the 14th Academy Awards. Since all "Film Fridays" this month center around an Oscar-winning or nominated picture, I thought I'd tell you a little bit about it.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alexander Hall, Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) tells the story of Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), a boxer-pilot-musician who crashes his plane while flying to a match and is escorted to heaven by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Norton). Arriving at the Pearly Gates, the celestial registrar, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), discovers that Joe has been called to his death 50 years too soon. 7013 returns Joe to the crash site only to find out that his manager, Max Corkle (James Gleason), has had the body cremated. Mr. Jordan orders 7013 to find Joe another body and they end up at the mansion of Bruce Farnsworth, a dishonest businessman who has just been drowned in the bath by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson) and his treacherous personal secretary, Tony Abbott (John Emery).

Joe dismisses Farnsworth until he sees Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) arrive at the house to plead with the millionaire on her father's behalf. Learning that Farnsworth has sold worthless securities using Logan's name, Joe, who is attracted to Bette, agrees to the identity switch so that he can help her. When he realizes that he will not be able to fight for the world's boxing title, Joe asks Mr. Jordan to be let out of the bargain, but changes his mind when Bette returns to thank him. Joe instead decides to train for the fight as Farnsworth and gets Max to help him, convincing him of his real identity by playing his favorite song on the saxophone. Just as romance begins to blossom between Joe and Bette, Julia and Tony succeed at killing Farnsworth, meaning that Joe can no longer inhabit the millionaire's body. When Joe's opponent, K.O. Murdock, is shot at ringside for not throwing the fight, Mr. Jordan lets Joe take over his body and he eventually wins the championship. After Julia and Tony are placed under arrest for Farnsworth's murder, Mr. Jordan informs Joe that he will permanently be Murdock and proceeds to remove all memories of Pendleton from his mind. On departing from the arena, Murdock runs into Bette and a spark on intuition draws them together. When Murdock invites her to dinner, she recalls Joe's words about meeting a fighter one day and quickly accepts.

Joe Pendleton/Bruce Farnsworth: You remember you said you saw something in my eyes? Well, if someday somebody came up to you it might even be a fighter and act like he had seen you some place before, you'd notice the same thing in him. Even if you thought you didn't you'd give him a break, 'cause he might be a good guy. 

Fantasy films have a history almost as old as the medium itself. People of all ages have responded to the magic of fantasy pictures since such pioneering efforts as Georges Méliès's one-reel short Cinderella (1899), which established the fairytale tradition that would come to inform so many subsequent productions of the genre. As cinema developed into the silent era, fantasy films continued to evolve in Europe, especially through German filmmakers including Robert Wiene with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), F. W. Murnau with Nosferatu (1922) and Fritz Lang with Metropolis (1927). American moviemakers, on the other hand, showed little interest in feature-length fantasies during this period, favoring other genres such as westerns, comedies and melodramas. Nevertheless, a number of notable Hollywood fantasy films were released in the silent era, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

With the influx of European filmmakers who moved to Hollywood in the late 1920s and 1930s, American fantasy pictures suddenly went from being a category of rare and often unnoteworthy productions to a significant genre. The most obvious result of this European influence was in Universal's horror film cycle, which began with The Cat and the Canary (1927) and reached its highest point with Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931). Suddenly, the Hollywood studios began to make horror films completely dependent on elements of the fantastic, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and King Kong (1933). By the mid-1930s, fantasy features became more light-hearted and comedy-oriented. For instance, Death Takes a Holiday (1934) showed Death (played by Fredric March) taking a human body to experience life only to fall in love, while Topper (1937) featured Roland Young as a man haunted by the ghost of a fun-loving married couple (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett).

Claude Rains and Robert Montgomery
The late 1930s and 1940s were a strategic time for the production of fantasy films. After the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Hollywood began producing an array of combat and war-related pictures, which effectively serialized the Allied effort and brought a new level of realism to American movie screens. The nation's theatre owners, however, were unsure about the "entertainment value" of war films and continually lobbyed for more escapist fare. Perhaps because of a natural interest in the Afterlife created by the war, Hollywood turned in a number of films that dealt with issues of life and death, featuring helpful ghosts or guardian angels. Among pictures such as I Married an Angel (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Angel on My Shoulder (1946), we find the one that originated the whole trend: Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

The peculiar story of Joe Pendleton was first created by writer Harry Segall in a 1938 stage play entitled Heaven Can Wait. Successful theatrical producer Jed Harris planned to bring Segall's play to Broadway, but Columbia Pictures purchased the screen rights with the idea that the story might become a good vehicle for Cary Grant, who was at the height of his career. Grant turned down the project, though he later agreed to participate in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the production on January 26, 1942, six months after the film's release. Heaven Can Wait was later performed on stage under two different titles, Halfway to Heaven (1943) in London and Wonderful Journey (1946) in New York, but both shows were unsuccessful.

Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes in a publicity still
Harry Cohn, head of production at Columbia, was initially skeptical about the film's commercial prospects and so were the studio's East Coast financial backers, who advised him to play it safe and only make pictures based on past successes. But Cohn liked Segall's story, so he gave writer Sidney Buchman approval to proceed with the screenplay, noting that the business judgment of his advisors was "too mechanical." He wrote to Buchman, "All they want is what sold last years. Go ahead with the picture." Buchman was one of Columbia's most sucessful screenwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, responsible for hits such as Theodora Goes Wild (1936), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and The Talk of the Town (1942). To adapt Heaven Can Wait to screen, Buchman worked with Seton I. Miller, whose credits included Scarface (1932) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).

After Grant refused the lead role in the newly titled Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Cohn convinced MGM to let him borrow Robert Montgomery to play Joe Pendleton. A New York native, Montgomery had been one of Hollywood's most popular and versatile male stars since the late 1920s, moving as easily from frightened young prison inmates in The Big House (1930); to charming psychopats in Night Might Fall (1937), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; to affected Brits in Busman's Honeymoon (1940); to suave, bemused partners in love and crime in Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). In 1940, anxious to contribute the war effort, he enlisted in London for American field service and drove ambulances in France until the Dunkirk evacuation. After the United States entered World War II, Montgomery joined the Navy and worked as a naval attaché at the U.S. embassy in London, before being assigned to the Pacific Theatre of war in 1942. He was also operations officer abroad a destroyer that took part in the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Although Montgomery was not happy to be on loan to Columbia, which was still considered a "Poverty Row" studio, he went ahead with the project.

Claude Rains, Robert Montgomery and James Gleason
To play the title role of Mr. Jordan, Columbia borrowed Claude Rains from Warner Bros., his home studio since 1935. The English-born actor and World War I veteran had made his American film debut in James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and quickly rose to be one of Hollywood's most sought-after supporting players, appearing in such successful productions as the aforementioned The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. Rains enjoyed his role in Here Comes Mr. Jordan immensely, often regarding the film as one of his favorites, and relished the opportunity to appear with veteran performer James Gleason, who played Joe's dumbfounded manager, Max "Pop" Corkle. Like Rains, Gleason had "trod the boards" since childhood; unlike Rains, the New York actor made no move to overcome the peculiarities of his speech, a "patois known as Brooklynese." 

Here Comes Mr. Jordan began filming in mid-April 1941, under the direction of Alexander Hall, who had been at Columbia since 1937. Hall began his career as an actor in the theater and played juvenile leads in some silent fims. Following his military service in World War I, he returned to Hollywood and worked as a film editor and assistant director until he made the complete transition to directing with Sinners in the Sun (1932), starring Carole Lombard, Chester Morris and Cary Grant. Location shooting for Here Comes Mr. Jordan took place in Los Angeles and Hollywood Hills and portions were filmed at Providencia Ranch, Universal City.

Edward Everett Horton, Robert Montgomery and
Claude Rains in Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Wrapping principal photograpy in June, Here Comes Mr. Jordan premiered at the Radio City Music Hall in New York on August 7, 1941 to solid box-office results and positive reviews from critics. Russell Maloney of The New Yorker called the film "one of the brighest comedies of the year," while Theodore Strauss of The New York Times described it as "gay, witty, tender and not a little wise. It is also one of the choicest comic fantasies of the years." Strauss also praised the cast, especially Robert Montgomery, writing that his "dazed prizefighter keeps his place secure as one of the screen's deftest comedians." For their part, Variety applauded Montgomery's acting as "a highlight in a group of excellent performances" and praised Hall's direction for "expert handling of characters and wringing utmost interest out of every scene."

At the 14th Academy Award held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in February 1942, Here Comes Mr. Jordan won two Oscars for Best Story and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actor (Robert Montgomery), Best Supporting Actor (James Gleason), Best Cinematography Black and White, Best Director and Best Picture. Montgomery lost to Gary Cooper for Sergeant York (1941) and Gleason lost to Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley (1941), which also won Best Picture, gave John Ford the directing award and Arthur C. Miller the cinematography statuette.

Lobby card for the film
In the wake of the critical and commercial success of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Columbia planned to film a sequel entitled Hell Bent for Mr. Jordan, but shelved the project until the original cast of Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton could be re-assembled to reprise their roles. That picture was never produced, but a few years later the studio released a partial sequel co-written by Harry Segall called Down to Earth (1947), which was also directed by Alexander Hall and reunited Gleason and Horton as Max Corkle and Messenger 7013. Roland Culver replaced Claude Rains as Mr. Jordan, while Rita Hayworth and Larry Parks starred in new roles as the Muse Terpsichore and a popular Broadway producer named Danny Miller.

In subsequent years, Here Comes Mr. Jordan became the kind of classic that inspired more remakes than any other film within the genre of supernatural romance. Almost forty years later, Warren Beatty starred in, produced, co-wrote and co-directed Heaven Can Wait (1978), an updated adaptation of Segall's original play and a reworking of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, now a baseball player; Buck Henry is his over-anxious guardian angel; James Mason is the mysterious Mr. Jordan; Dyan Cannon and Charles Gordin are the double-crossing Julia Farnsworth and Tony Abbott; Jack Warden is Joe's friend and manager Max Corkle; and Julie Christie is Betty Logan, an environmental journalist whom Joe (as Farnsworth) falls in love with. Heaven Can Wait was well-liked by the public and warmly greeted by critics and industry peers, winning the Oscar for Best Art Direction and receiving eight additional nominations Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Beatty), Best Supporting Actor (Warden), Best Supporting Actress (Cannon), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to His Work in Film, Stage, Radio, Television and Recordings by John T. Soister with JoAnna Wioskowski (1999) | Columbia Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1928-1982 by Michael R. Pitts (2010) | Supernatural Romance in Film: Tales of Love, Death and the Afterlife by Richard Striner (2011) | The Fantasy Film by Katherine A. Fowkes (2010) | Video Versions: Film Adaptations of Plays on Video edited by Thomas L. Erskine and James M. Welsh (2000) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


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