1939 has long reigned as the acknowledged finest year in movie history, but I really think 1941 gives it a run for its money, though perhaps I’m biased. Many of my favorite movies come from that year. Here is just a sample of the wonderful year that was 1941: The Maltese Falcon, The Lady Eve, Citizen Kane, The Wolf Man, Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Suspicion, Sullivan’s Travels, Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes and many more.
Another wonderful film that came out in 1941 is Here Comes Mr. Jordan, with Robert Montgomery, the incomparable Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton.
IMDB labeled it a fantasy/comedy/romance, although really it is a genre all its own, having spawned many other movies of its type, though Here Comes Mr. Jordan remains one of the finest films of the genre of angels or ghosts interacting with, guiding, or annoying humans.
Joe Pendleton (Montgomery) is a boxer with high expectations of becoming the next heavyweight champion. However, while flying his plane and playing his lucky saxophone, his plane takes a nosedive and hits the ground. The next we see of him, he is walking on clouds, absolutely incensed that an angel has pulled him out of his body. He keeps insisting that he is not dead and the bumbling angel (Horton) insists that he is. However, when it comes time to board that plane that presumably leads to the hereafter, Joe complains to the angel in charge, Mr. Jordan (Rains) and it turns out that there has been a grave error. The bumbling angel, Messenger 7013, had pulled Joe out of his body before he was actually dead; Joe was actually fated to survive the crash and live another fifty years. However, it’s too late to put Joe back in his body because it was cremated by his boxing manager, Max Corkle (Gleason). Mr. Jordan decides that he will take personal charge and find Joe a body he likes.
And after looking at 130 prospective bodies for Joe to inhabit, they do find one that Joe can use temporarily until they find him a really good one that he can use to win the heavyweight championship. Joe steps into the body of Bruce Farnsworth, corrupt banker who was just murdered by his wife and her lover.
Joe, of course, is not really Farnsworth, which confuses everyone he’s around and he discomfits everyone by his strange behavior, like undoing some of Farnsworth’s shady dealings and trying to get Farnsworth’s body back into shape so he can compete for the heavyweight championship. He even manages to convince his manager, Corkle, that Farnsworth is really Joe. And to top it off, he falls in love with Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man that Farnsworth had framed.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is, among other things, an example of what my sister and I call a “cosmic romance.” A cosmic romance is any romance that is a love story outside of time or dimensions, that goes on forever, where two people were meant to be together, or are trying to be together, despite little things like space and time. Another aspect of a cosmic romance is that there is only the one person for you; there is never anyone else you could be with and if you cannot have them you will live your whole life waiting to be reunited afterwards. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison is a cosmic romance, as is Beau Brummel with John Barrymore and Mary Astor, and even, improbably enough, The Mummy with Boris Karloff. And The Princess Bride is actually spoofing the true love, cosmic romance concept, if you think about it, with Wesley and Buttercup and his constant assertion of how this is “true love” and that “death cannot stop true love.”
What makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan a cosmic romance is also what gives the movie its underlying philosophic core: that a person’s body is just the wrappings of the human soul; the person is still the same no matter what body they inhabit. It’s an idea that goes back to people like Plato and made its way through Rene Descartes. It’s the dual nature, mind/body concept, with the body less important than the mind/spirit. For example, Mr. Jordan tells Joe that although Bette Logan hates Farnsworth, she will learn to look past the fact that Joe looks like Farnsworth and will come to love the Joe who is inside. In fact, no matter what body Joe happens to be in, it is always clear that he and Bette have that special connection and they will always be attracted to each other.
However good the romance is, though, Claude Rains, James Gleason and Edward Everett Horton are all natural and delightful scene stealers and who really put this movie over the top. James Gleason’s confusion at the strange goings-on and the body hopping of Joe is so fun, as well as his genuine concern for the guy. And Claude Rains is simply perfect. He has just the right smile, distant and all-knowing as befits an angel, but also benevolent without seeming smug, and definitely with a touch of dry humor. You get the feeling that although he showed Joe 138 bodies before he got to Farnsworth’s, he always knew what body he meant Joe to choose. He spends a lot of time standing around in the background, not saying anything, but looking very wise, and it is amazing how the eye is drawn to him even when he is not doing a thing. And I love how his two angel pins on either side of his lapel make it look like he has two extra eyes watching you.
I don’t know how I missed this movie for so long. I’d hardly even heard of it, but it is so wry, heart-warming, whimsical and so extremely well acted, that it has become one of those movies I feel could become a life-long favorite.
September 15, 2014 at 5:49 pm
I love this movie and the Ghost and Mrs Miniver. Thanks for the philosophy behind it!
Have you seen the Warren Beatty remake of the 70s or early 80s? Different style of movie making, the glamour of the metaphysical is there but, for me, perhaps the shimmering glamour of the storytelling in the 1941 version isn’t lived up to.
I like both. I must be into cosmic romances too.
September 15, 2014 at 9:27 pm
I have seen the one with Warren Beatty, though I was a kid when I saw it, but I remember liking the story a lot. I hadn’t initially realized that it was a remake and when I was reading about Here Comes Mr. Jordan I kept thinking, “gosh, this plot sounds familiar.” 🙂 I definitely agree about the shimmer glamour of the 1941 version!
September 15, 2014 at 9:32 pm
Heaven Can Wait is the name of the Warren Beatty remake! My memory kicked in finally!
September 15, 2014 at 10:00 pm
Oh, that’s right, Heaven Can Wait! Movie names can be so confusing because I think there is another movie called Heaven Can Wait, but that has nothing to do with Here Comes Mr. Jordan or the Warren Beatty movie, but was directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I haven’t seen that one, though.
September 15, 2014 at 10:02 pm
I’ve so much to see and so much to learn.