Here Comes Mr. Jordan - The Criterion Collection Review
A sophisticated supernatural Hollywood comedy whose influence continues to be felt, Here Comes Mr. Jordan stars the eminently versatile Robert Montgomery as a working-class boxer and amateur aviator whose plane crashes in a freak accident. He finds himself in heaven but is told, by a wry angel named Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), that his death was a clerical error, and that he can return to Earth by entering the body of a corrupt (and about-to-be-murdered) financier—whose soul could use a transplant.
A bumbling angel, a bureaucratic afterlife, warm-hearted farcical humour and a touch of well placed sentimental romance. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is as classic Hollywood as Hollywood can get. Less ambitious, but it’s in the mould of Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (British, but the plot is a simple twist on the same idea), and adds a dash of the wit that made Preston Sturges’ best work stand out in the 1940s. And yet, it pre-dates every one of them; even Sturges hadn’t started his streak of hits.
It might even be the first fantasy to feature a familiar looking, fallible and officious Heaven, something we take for granted now. No opulence, wings or choirs here, just men in suits reading off clipboards. This was perhaps a response to the impending doom of World War II facing American audiences. Dying isn’t so bad when kindly old Claude Rains is making sure everything is ship-shape. This theme of diffusing the fear of death would soon be followed by cheerful Clarence trying to save James Stewart or David Niven demanding a Heavenly trial to defend his right to stay on earth.
That same fascination with the afterlife has become a perennial cinema favourite across many genres, not least Ghost. Considering it was a big hit, garnering two remakes and a sequel, as well as astonishingly influential, it makes you wonder why Here Comes Mr. Jordan hasn’t had the promotion over the years that has seen its cousins re-released multiple times. This dependably thorough presentation from Criterion might be a start to putting that right.
It is a joy of a film and Robert Montgomery is perfectly cast as Joe, a role turned down by Cary Grant. Grant did do the radio play, included in this set, and it’s easy to say so now, but he doesn’t seem quite right anyway. Montgomery is excellent as a sure-hearted, if slightly naive American everyman; his optimistic confusion is a delight, especially playing off the exasperated Edward Everett Horton’s angel, trying to put his mistake right, or the great Claude Rains in his Oscar nominated role as the titular Mr Jordan. He’s Heaven’s office manager with a few tricks up his sleeve and Rains’ trick is deceiving you with simplicity while anchoring the film. Joe’s manager Max, played by James Gleason, gets the biggest laughs as he slowly loses his marbles trying to communicate with the invisible Mr Jordan. And especially his banter with Donald MacBride’s Inspector, a routine to briefly rival Abbot and Costello.
The deft screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller hasn’t dated. Sharply intelligent and confident, it plays the whole thing light and mischievously farcical. It has the faintest touches of scary and a good dollop of romance with Evelyn Keye’s Bette, while Alexander Hall’s unassuming direction is brisk and watchable, neatly skipping between variable tones.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a little film with a masses of heart and easy to think of as a Preston Sturges script directed by Frank Capra, but it has earned a reputation all of its own. Thanks to Criterion, maybe it will earn a new audience too.
The film itself is a relatively simple production and visually typical of the time for what was perhaps intended to be a rather routine studio release, but Criterion's transfer is the best version I have seen. It is clean and crisp throughout with an even contrast and no notable defects.
Comedy and the Afterlife (32m) - In this new piece, critic Michael Sragow and distributor Michael Schlesinger discuss the enormous success of the film and its influence, especially in the lead-up to the US entering the war. (An early version of the script made a pointed reference). They make for a cheerful listen and put the film in context with the comedy genre and studio output of the time.
Ronald Haver and Elizabeth Montgomery 1991 (80m, audio only) - Elizabeth was Robert’s daughter and herself most famous for Bewitched. In this lively audio interview by film historian Ronald she discusses her father and her own career. She’s a funny and engaging subject, full of wonderful anecdotes.
Lux Radio Theatre - Now this is a curiosity! A radio play version of the film (far from unusual in itself) starring some of the original cast, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason and Claude Rains, but with Cary Grant playing Joe. Grant was originally offered the film role. He sounds a little subdued; you can easily imagine him typically in the role, but in practice, not so much. It’s an entertaining listen though, they had great fun with these productions.