Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is one of those rare Hollywood classics that hasn't dated and never fails to raise one's spirits. It's one of the first and best of the Films Blanc, the splinter genre of light comedy-dramas that imagine the universe to be governed by a fanciful Hereafter. Screenwriters Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller put Robert Montgomery into a no man's land between heaven and earth, while sympathetic angels work to correct a cosmic error. Nominated for seven Oscars, the film won two, for Original Story and Screenplay.
The Columbia release has a confusing history of remakes and sound-a-likes. It's originally from a Harry Segall play called Heaven Can Wait, the title of which ended up on Ernst Lubitsch's unrelated 1943 Film Blanc with Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. But when Warren Beatty remade Mr. Jordan in 1978, he reverted to the Heaven Can Wait title. In a further wrinkle, director Alexander Hall brought back three of Jordan's characters, played by two of the same actors, for 1947's Down to Earth.
Saxophone-playing boxing contender Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) insists on flying against the wishes of his manager Max Corkle (James Gleason). When the plane crashes, inexperienced heavenly messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) prematurely separates Joe's soul from his body -- he was supposed to live another fifty years. To compensate, the wise heavenly supervisor Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) finds a temporary home for Joe's soul in the just-murdered body of Farnsworth, an unscrupulous banker. In his new guise as Farnsworth, Pendleton falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes). Joe is therefore understandably upset when Mr. Jordan tells him that he'll have to move on to yet another waiting body, to live out the rest of his fifty allotted years.
The name Film Blanc was indeed invented to represent the opposite of Film Noir. This is essentially the "heavenly waiting room" movie, the kind of fantasy that proposes a fantastic continuity between life and death. The basic formula is from Ferenc Molnar's play Liliom wherein heavenly overseers grant a suicide the opportunity to return to earth to see what's become of his orphaned daughter. Films Blanc frequently present a protocol problem that taxes the cosmic system. Someone must return to earth as a ghost, or something remarkable is revealed about a man's life when viewed from an ethereal point of view. But the most common theme is the persistence of romance: Love cuts across all boundaries between earth and heaven. One need not believe in spiritual miracles to realize that life itself is miraculous.
Usually, the lighter in tone a Film Blanc, the more successful it is. Fritz Lang's version of Liliom walks a fine line between satire and pathos, while the darker Death Takes a Holiday and Outward Bound drift into morbid moods. A more positive view of existence is found in pictures as varied as Heaven Can Wait, A Guy Named Joe, The Horn Blows at Midnight, It's a Wonderful Life, A Matter of Life and Death (Stairway to Heaven), Defending Your Life, Groundhog Day and Down to Earth.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a prime example of the classic Film Blanc in action. Boxer Joe Pendleton becomes the ward of angelic advisor-counselors after his earthly body is accidentally destroyed; the calm Mr. Jordan and his hyper assistant 7013 take his case as if he were a stranded plane passenger in need of V.I.P. handling. In addition to ghostly comedy and amusing identity mix-ups, the tale has an optimistic and uplifting message. The human soul is a wondrous thing that lives after us, even if it takes new forms and new identities. Our essential goodness will be passed on to those that follow. Love doesn't die with one's mortal body.
A fable as delicate as this one needs special handling, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan stands out as one of the better-cast pictures of its time. Fresh from a decade of romantic comedies, Robert Montgomery plays Joe Pendleton as an idealistic softie. It's important that a Film Blanc character be more than a puppet of supernatural forces, and Joe frequently takes the initiative. The young Evelyn Keyes also scores as a woman with a unique romantic problem. Her Bette Logan character deals admirably with the heartbreak of loss and is rewarded with a spiritual rebirth.
Heavenly emissaries Claude Rains and Edward Everett Horton regulate the traffic between the realms of existence, keeping tabs on lists of newly arrived souls. Rains' unflappable manner and smooth voice are ideal for the godly Mr. Jordan; Horton's fussy comic relief makes Rains seem all the more benevolent and wise.
The most amusing character is James Gleason's Max Corkle. As the boxing manager staggered by Pendleton's fantastic reincarnation as Farnsworth, Gleason handles most of the physical comedy and serves as an ideal audience surrogate. The twinkle in Gleason's eye endeared him to audiences through dozens of pictures, all the way to Charles Laughton's chilling The Night of the Hunter.
Director Alexander Hall keeps his focus on the exceedingly likeable characters, employing few visual or directorial touches. Mr. Jordan's heaven is a foggy 'nowhere' between earth and heaven, a visual concept that would become the standard Film Blanc setting. Other Films Blanc use elaborate art direction and special effects to envision the afterlife as a vast alien world, but Mr. Jordan's simplicity easily wins out over the likes of What Dreams May Come with its unending CGI illusions. The filmmakers know that everyday miracles like falling in love more often than not happen in ordinary places, like a walkway under a boxing arena.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is one of those 'frivolous' fantasy concoctions that viewers never entirely forget. Montgomery's Joe Pendleton becomes a better, more thoughtful person when he's transformed into Farnsworth. He also carries the benefit of his emotional experiences with him to a third and final identity. Personal destinies in Film Blanc can be as frustratingly fatalistic as Films Noir, but Here Comes Mr. Jordan envisions a Fate that cooperates to help us live out our dreams.
Sony's DVD of Here Comes Mr. Jordan presents the 1941 film in a polished B&W transfer, restored in conjunction with the UCLA Film Archive. Frederick Hollander's sweet score comes across well on the clear soundtrack. No extras are included, but Sony's generic menu informs us of a French audio track option. The cover's cluttered collage of still images makes no impression whatsoever.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Here Comes Mr. Jordan rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 31, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
A note from Haggai Elizur, 2.12.07:
Hi Glenn, I enjoyed reading your review of Here Comes Mr. Jordan as a "film blanc."The thing is, when I recently saw it on Turner Classic Movies, I was struck by how many plot points it had that were soon to become the staple of so many film noir stories. For example:
A scheming wife and her illicit lover conspire to knock off her unscrupulous husband.
Multiple murders via gunshot and drowning.
A killing related to a fixed boxing match.
A person adopts a new identity -- actually, multiple identities -- without anyone being able to recognize him.
Double Indemnity, Hollow Triumph/The Scar, The Set-Up... all have plots that center around one or more of those story ideas. Here Comes Mr. Jordan has all of them, and yet it's the opposite of noir! And an interesting difference from Beatty's (1978) version is that the scheming couple is played straight in the original -- they're truly villainous, as opposed to the cartoonish buffoons played by Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon. I do really like the broader take on those characters in Beatty's version, with Cannon in particular giving a hilarious performance, but the fact that they're played strictly for laughs is quite different from the dark antagonists of the original. So perhaps Mr. Jordan is the most "noir" of all the "films blanc"? -- Haggai
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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