Home Video Hovel: Here Comes Mr. Jordan, by David Bax
It’s no wonder, really, that Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan is just one of many retellings of the same story. First, it was a play by Harry Segall called Heaven Can Wait, then Hall’s film version came along, then Warren Beatty remade it in 1978, restoring the original title, then Chris and Paul Weitz remade it again in 2001 with Chris Rock in the lead role, calling it Down to Earth, the name of the 1947 semi-sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. In each case, folks seemed eager to take another crack at the terrifically compelling premise of the story. Unfortunately, in most cases, there’s a low return on the high concept.
In this, the 1941 adaptation, Robert Montgomery stars as Joe Pendleton, an up and coming prizefighter mistakenly snatched out of existence early by a celestial worker on his first day on the job. By the time the gaffe has been uncovered, Pendleton’s body has been cremated and he is unable to return to it. But he is offered a deal. He may live out the rest of his predetermined number of days on Earth in the body of another man whose life is about to meet a sudden end.
When Here Comes Mr. Jordan does work, it’s mostly due to the charm of the cast. Montgomery reveals in Pendleton a foundation of inherent decentness under his bullheaded ambition. As Pendleton’s diminutive but explosively neurotic manager, James Gleason is a comedy firecracker. Both actors were nominated for Academy Awards. Edward Everett Horton bumbles indignantly as the neophyte angel. And finally, but most importantly, Claude Rains plays Mr. Jordan himself, an exceedingly polite and charming heavenly ambassador whose unceasing calm can be sometime soothing and sometimes troubling.
Rains gets most of the best lines. The facts of any particular death are of no consequence to him because his job starts when all that is over. His blithe reaction and description of destroyed corpses and bathtub murders give the early parts of the film a dark comedy. Sadly, though, that weirdness dissipates and its potential is snuffed out by a rote romance.
The transfer and restoration here are done very well, even though the byproduct is a clearer view of the uncharacteristically flat cinematography from the great Joseph Walker.
Special features include a conversation between critic Michael Sragow and filmmaker/distributor Michael Schlesinger, an audio interview with Elizabeth Montgomery (Robert Montgomery’s daughter), a radio adaptation from 1942 with Cary Grant, in which Rains and Gleason reprise their roles and an essay by critic Farran Smith Nehme.