Every few years or so, we get a new “guardian angel” flick: It's a Wonderful Life, Angels in the Outfield, The Heavenly Kid, Michael, etc. To varying degrees, the DNA of these movies can be traced back to the 1941 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which more or less established both the cheeky-but-not-sacrilegious tone that has defined many cinematic portraits of guardian angels. A lot of the films made on the subject have a tendency to drift too far into cutesiness or sentimentality, but Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a pretty good template for what such movies ought to be: it's just the right combination of sweet, funny and clever.
Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery, Lady in the Lake) is a gifted boxer who's on the brink of becoming the new prizefighting champion. When he isn't fighting, he's usually playing his saxophone (he's hardly ready to join the Glenn Miller band, but he's okay) or flying his small personal airplane. One day, he foolishly attempts to do both of those things at the same time. The plane crashes, and Joe is killed. Moral of the story: don't be an idiot.
Ah, but the tale is just beginning. Joe arrives in heaven, demanding to know what's going on and where his plane went. “I don't belong here!” he insists. Incredibly, he's right: a high-ranking angel named Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, Casablanca) discovers that Joe wasn't scheduled for death for another fifty years, and quickly agrees to let Joe go back to earth and re-enter his body. Alas, by the time he gets to the crash site, someone else has already found the body and cremated it. Mr. Jordan proposes an alternate solution: he'll give Joe another body. Of course, it'll have to be the body of someone who has just died... you can't just have two souls trapped in the same bag of meat.
After much deliberation, Joe eventually agrees to accept the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a wealthy, corrupt investment banker who has just been drowned by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson, My Friend Flicka) and her lover Tony Abbott (John Emery, Joan of Arc). He's a little hesitant about becoming a person everyone hates, but Mr. Jordan insists that he can turn around Farnsworth's reputation in no time. So, after shocking Julia and Tony with the revelation that he's still alive, “Farnsworth” proceeds to use his wealth to repay all of the investors he cheated.
Rather than casting two different actors as Joe/Farnsworth, the film lets Montgomery handle everything on his own: when he looks in the mirror, we see the shock on his face, but we don't see whatever he's seeing. The actor proves more than capable of handling the challenge, capturing a slightly dim (but not quite dumb) man who slowly but surely begins to master the art of being another person. He's initially worried about raising suspicion, but quickly learns that his worries are unfounded: who's going to believe that someone else is living inside Farnsworth's body?
For the most part, the film plays Joe's complicated situation for laughs that exist somewhere between screwball lunacy and sitcom-style familiarity (though surely it felt less conventional back when the film was first released... after all, no one had done anything quite like this at the time). Joe's biggest problem is that he isn't content to simply be the person he's been asked to be. He wants his old life back: he still wants to be a prizefighting champion, even if he has to use Farnsworth's body to do it. Suffice it to say that this desire causes some complications. There's also a romance of sorts with the lovely Miss Logan (Evelyn Keyes, Gone with the Wind), the daughter of a financier Farnsworth had cheated. Miss Logan had hated Farnsworth in the past, but now... well, there's something different about him.
The film's greatest asset is the wonderful performance of Claude Rains in the title role. Rains plays Mr. Jordan with serene but good-humored officiousness, keeping a close eye on everything that happens but never getting even a little unnerved by the hiccups along the way. Rains' dulcet tones, warm eyes and polite smirk are just right for the part, and he generates the film's biggest laughs by punctuating Montgomery's bluster with perfectly-placed one-liners.
Curiously, the film never actually refers to Mr. Jordan as an angel (though that's obviously what he is), nor does it make any explicit reference to God or religion or theology. It's clear that heaven – assuming that's what it is – has a very specific way of doing things, but we aren't really given a detailed look at any of that (Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life feels like a movie made by someone who watched a film like this and decided to use the missing pieces as a starting point). It simply establishes some easy-to-interpret images and lets viewers bring their own biases to the table.
Director Alexander Hall isn't exactly a Hawks or a Sturges, but his direction is simple and effective. This is easily the best-known work of his career, and the only film that earned him an Academy Award nomination. In addition to providing some form of inspiration for all those other guardian angel films, Here Comes Mr. Jordan also inspired a sequel (the 1947 film Down to Earth) and two remakes (Heaven Can Wait in 1978 and Down to Earth – which uses the plot of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and the title of its sequel - in 2001). For my money, the first is still the best: not quite a classic, but a consistently charming and occasionally inspired supernatural comedy.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94 minutes
Release Year: 1941