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Here Comes the Angel of Death

The much-loved Here Comes Mr. Jordan has spawned two direct remakes and a sequel, but the 1941 original retains a snap and a vigor—and a unique charm—that no other version has been able to duplicate. Why does it keep such a hold on our affections? Perhaps it’s the way it mixes elements in a way unique to its era—screwball comedy, slapstick farce, boxing fable, supernatural romance. Directed by Alexander Hall and released by Columbia Pictures, it boasts a just-crazy-enough premise—angels try to return the soul of a boxer, who has been mistakenly snatched by an overeager apprentice, to a ring-ready body back on Earth—yet has enough real-world pathos to leave a lasting emotional impact. The rollicking dialogue and gleefully complex plot, the film’s belief in friendship, destiny, and true love, and even—or perhaps especially—its indifference to theology and the permanence of death, are as irresistible as ever.

The movie has two bona fide stars: Robert Montgomery as boxer Joe Pendleton, showing off a convincing accent straight from New York’s outer boroughs, and Claude Rains and his heavenly voice as Mr. Jordan, the executive angel who must fix his underling’s mistake. The endless complications of the story arise from the early twist of Joe’s grief-stricken manager, Max (James Gleason), having Joe’s earthly remains cremated. Eventually Joe is deposited in the body of Bruce Farnsworth, a rich layabout whose wife (Rita Johnson) and secretary (John Emery) have just teamed to bump him off, or so they think. Joe isn’t keen on being a dissipated millionaire—he wants to regain his shot at the boxing championship with a body that’s “in the pink,” a phrase he repeats so often that even the serene Mr. Jordan tells him it’s “obnoxious.” But then Joe lays eyes on dewy Bette (Evelyn Keyes), a young woman whose father has been swindled by Farnsworth. To help her, Joe becomes Farnsworth, and settles for hiring a baffled but cooperative Max to train the body he’s got.

For Montgomery, this film marked a shift from the sophisticates he had played for much of his career. “The directors shoved a cocktail shaker in my hands and kept me shaking it for years,” he once remarked. He’d been permitted to put down the martinis for an acclaimed role as a Cockney serial killer menacing Rosalind Russell in 1937’s Night Must Fall. And in 1940, in something of a warm-up for Mr. Jordan, Montgomery had been an American bootlegger who somehow winds up inheriting a British title in The Earl of Chicago. But Joe Pendleton was the role that let Montgomery fully combine his comic abilities with a macho quality he’d rarely been allowed to display.

All those years of playing drawing-room comedy anchor Montgomery’s metronomic timing as Joe, who is good-hearted but not terribly bright. The movie never shows what Joe looks like as Farnsworth; there are no “mirror” shots where we get to see what the other characters are seeing. It’s all done through Montgomery’s performance, as when he first encounters Farnsworth’s butler (Halliwell Hobbes). Joe’s expression initially shows schoolboy terror of being caught, but when he looks the butler in the eye, and realizes the deception is working, it changes to childlike glee.

For Rains, who by then had played everything from the title phantom scientist in The Invisible Man to the effeminate and venomous Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood, a role as a high-ranking heavenly manager came as naturally as anything else. Ever calm, ever ready to explain the supernatural regulations to an understandably baffled Joe, Rains gives Mr. Jordan a hint of steel. Deaths and reversals are there to be carried out with efficiency, not questioned. To borrow a line from Casablanca, which Rains would make the following year, Mr. Jordan may be an angel, but he is no “rank sentimentalist.”

Together, Montgomery and Rains, the tough guy and the seraph, work to put Joe back on Earth as the champion boxer he was meant to be. But Here Comes Mr. Jordan has a vast, teeming cast, and one thing that made the studio era golden was the stupendous talent of its character actors—people who enriched a movie simply by showing up. So when Joe first finds himself amid swirling clouds, arguing with a hapless angel-in-training named 7013 about whether or not he’s dead, the screwball payoff comes from seeing that 7013 is Edward Everett Horton. As befits a movie about a bureaucratic foul-up, much of the dialogue consists of squabbling, at which Horton—the veteran fussbudget of so many 1930s comedies—was peerless. Asked by a livid Mr. Jordan to identify his assigned area of Earth, 7013 says with chagrin, “It’s a place called New Jersey, and if it could be arranged, sir, I should like to be transferred.”

James Gleason, a wiry bantam of an actor born in Brooklyn, brings wry urban skepticism to his scenes as Joe’s manager, Max Corkle. Max alone is told that Farnsworth, somehow, is inhabited by his beloved Joe. But Max can’t see or hear Mr. Jordan, and the way Gleason plays Max’s attempts to make one-sided contact has an immense, goofy appeal. Taking leave of the angel he can’t see, Max stammers, “Could I drop you somewhere? Nah, come to think of it, I ain’t goin’ your way.” Even the smaller parts, from Donald MacBride as a blustering cop to Don Costello as a crooked boxing manager, flesh out a universe that at least somewhat resembles our own.

The story comes from a 1938 play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait. But Twentieth Century-Fox had dibs on the title, and indeed used it two years later for a delightful and wholly unrelated Ernst Lubitsch comedy, thus ensuring years of confusion that only increased when Warren Beatty remade Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1978 but went back to the name of Segall’s play. In 1947, Hall guided an altered cast (although Gleason returned) for a musical sort-of sequel called Down to Earth. And Down to Earth was what they dubbed a 2001 remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan that starred Chris Rock. Should someone ever remake the 1947 Down to Earth and release it as Heaven Can Wait, the title mayhem will be complete.

In the way of many beloved studio movies, the road to production had a few bumps. The head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, at first was worried that Segall’s premise was a little too fey. Montgomery, a lifelong conservative whose patriotism had spurred him to spend time driving an ambulance in France, had only recently returned to his home studio, MGM. But, despite his restlessness there, when Montgomery found himself loaned out to the perpetually low-budget Columbia, he wasn’t pleased about it. In addition, he did not enjoy a warm relationship with his character’s love interest, played by Evelyn Keyes.

Keyes had first made her name in Gone with the Wind, in a small part in a film so big that she titled her autobiography Scarlett O’Hara’s Younger Sister. She’d signed with Columbia in 1940 and made a couple of good movies, including The Face Behind the Mask with Peter Lorre, but Here Comes Mr. Jordan marked the studio’s attempt to sex her up a little. Columbia wanted Keyes to resemble their top star Rita Hayworth, and thus they padded her figure and made her wear hairpieces to imitate Hayworth’s luscious mane. In addition to her hair and makeup discomfort, Keyes at the time was having a red-hot affair with the married director Charles Vidor. One day, she recounts in her autobiography, Montgomery drawled to her, “I hear you’re running around with a married man.” Unable to tell if he was joking, and not much caring either way, Keyes snapped back, “What business is it of yours?” The tenderness of Keyes and Montgomery’s love scenes is a small triumph of acting, and offers proof that on-screen chemistry is a mystery no scientist can ever solve. Presumably all hard feelings were, if not forgotten, at least soothed by Here Comes Mr. Jordan’s stellar notices and boffo box office.

In terms of film history, 1941 was a triumph. Hollywood’s output that year was staggering, even by the eccentric standards of what films got Oscar nominations, which list includes The Maltese Falcon, How Green Was My Valley, The Little Foxes, Suspicion, and a rather well-regarded film called Citizen Kane. (Here Comes Mr. Jordan garnered seven nominations, winning best story for Harry Segall and best adapted screenplay for Sidney Buchman and Seton Miller.) If you went to the cinema and sat through the newsreels, however, 1941 was terrifying. Even before Pearl Harbor in December, many Americans realized we wouldn’t be able to sit this one out much longer.

At first, the sweetness and slapstick of Mr. Jordan may seem like the purest escapism. Audiences were primed for a movie that said that things happen for a reason, and that death can, in a pinch, be undone. Look closer, however, and it’s easy to see the grimness that lurks under the bright surface. Bruce Farnsworth’s first murder is described in detail—they drugged him, then drowned him in his bath. Farnsworth eventually meets a second end that is even grislier (“Take a look in the basement icebox,” says Max). Later, we learn of crooked boxing promoters planning to kill Joe’s erstwhile rival, K. O. Murdock, just as the title is in Murdock’s hands. The half-heavenly world of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has an awfully high murder rate.

Then there’s Joe’s original accident, the plane hurtling toward Earth; we’re told 7013 pulled Joe out ahead of time because he couldn’t stand the thought of the boxer’s pain on impact. While Joe argues at the way station where people board the planes for the hereafter, columns of the newly dead are moving behind him to get on the plane. One group is from Finland, where war had restarted in June 1941 after a brief peace, and another from southeast Australia—near where the war in the Pacific was well under way. Even the pretty tune that Joe hilariously butchers on his ever-present lucky saxophone is “The Last Rose of Summer,” based on a poem by Thomas Moore about loneliness and death (the unheard lyrics start, “’Tis the last rose of summer, / Left blooming alone . . .”). It takes sure hands at script and direction and a nimble cast to maintain the sweetness around such bitter pills.

Religious implications are scrupulously avoided. No one refers to 7013 or Mr. Jordan as an angel, though if there were any doubt, there’s the wing insignia right on their vaguely military uniforms, and the name Jordan, as in “crossing the River ——.” There’s one mention of heaven, another of “Hades,” and zero uses of the word God or even Providence. Instead, Mr. Jordan says things like “It is your destiny,” and “Nothing could prevent it,” without ever specifying Who maps out these matters. That, plus the way the rules are invoked but never spelled out, maintains the comic mode. Mr. Jordan is, after all, the angel of death; in 1941, would you have gone to see a comedy called Here Comes the Angel of Death?

Critic Dave Kehr once referred to Alexander Hall as “the guy who got the Columbia projects that Frank Capra turned down,” and indeed it is hard to discern a distinctive imprint from Hall’s direction. Aided by the black-and-white genius of Capra’s frequent cinematographer Joseph Walker, Hall’s direction is unobtrusive to the point of invisibility, though some compositions stand out. There is the prop of the grand piano slicing the frame, as Mr. Jordan explains to Joe that Farnsworth is being murdered upstairs, thus offering a fresh body for Joe to inhabit. The backstage stairs that soar up in the last scene are at first romantic, as Joe’s last incarnation and Bette recognize each other across this world and the next, then poignant, when Mr. Jordan steps up to say farewell—for now.

The real emotional climax, however, has come just before, when Max cradles the saxophone that has stayed with Joe through all his various guises. Gleason’s expression says Joe was like a son to Max—a son he’s lost three times now. The pleasures of Here Comes Mr. Jordan are not those you get from a visual stylist but those found from watching actors working at the very top of their abilities, in a clever plot with skillful dialogue. And actors are, after all, part of a film’s visual elements. A camera trained in stillness on Claude Rains is as good as or better than many another film’s flashy traveling shot, even when, as in several scenes, he’s out of focus, stretching elegantly in a chair in the background, listening to what’s going on.

In 1989, Keyes, discussing Here Comes Mr. Jordan, told a reporter, “I enjoyed doing comedy. It’s complex. You can’t think you’re being funny. Comedy is serious business.” Turning death into comedy is Here Comes Mr. Jordan’s serious accomplishment.

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