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Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941)

Poster%20-%20Here%20Comes%20Mr_%20Jordan_121939 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 TravelsBall 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.

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Messenger 7013, Joe Pendleton and Mr. Jordan

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.”

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Bette Logan, Robert Montgomery and Mr. Jordan, with the angel pins looking like eyes on his suit

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.

Joe tries to convince Corkle that he's Joe while Mr. Jordan looks on

Joe tries to convince Corkle that though he looks like Mr. Farnsworth he’s really Joe, while Mr. Jordan looks on

 
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Posted by on September 15, 2014 in Comedy, Fantasy, Romance

 

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Yolanda and the Thief (1945)

loR45C3The best description I can think of for Yolanda and the Thief is bucolic surrealism. A musical fantasy that was the brainchild of director Vincente Minnelli, it flopped on its release and ruined Lucille Bremer’s career before it was even properly underway. Not even Fred Astaire liked it and retired soon afterwards (though he came back again). Most people consider it a mess with a few who feel it is a hidden gem ahead of its time. I’m somewhere in between. It’s a mess, but it has an odd kind of charm.

In the South American-flavored fictional country of Patria, Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) is the heir to the Aquaviva fortune, a family business so omnipresent that it seems to have a monopoly on the entire national economy. I’m surprised there aren’t any revolutions in Patria. But Yolanda is an innocent child, raised in a convent, who must take up the family business on her eighteenth birthday, much to her dismay and trepidation.

Meanwhile, con artist Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire) and his partner in crime, swindler Victor Budlow Trout (Frank Morgan), have come to Patria because they can’t be extradited there. When they hear of Yolanda’s incredible wealth, Johnny determines to steal her money away. He sneaks into her garden and when he hears her praying to her guardian angel for help in managing her estate, has an idea. He’ll pretend to be her guardian angel, come to relieve her of her financial troubles.

Yolanda instantly falls for his ruse (though I thought his idea of how angels should act was original, to say the least – a bit condescending and a bit too smooth an operator; angels shouldn’t be smarmy). He tells her that he will take care of everything if she’ll sign certain papers and gives him power of attorney. But while he and Trout are engaged in this bit of larceny, a mysterious man (Leon Ames) seems to be hanging around and Johnny can’t quite figure out his angle. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he’s fallen in love with Yolanda, which she completely reciprocates, though she feels ashamed, since one is not supposed to fall in love with an angel.

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in a nightmare sequence

The Techniclor in this film is bonkers! When people say someone is a “flaming redhead” they are describing Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief. Bremer looks gorgeous, but she’s not very convincing as an innocent fresh from the convent. And she doesn’t dress like an innocent fresh from the convent, either. She looks like she could play a terrific New York socialite, though.

What’s puzzling about this film is that it’s such an odd blend of happy peasants and imaginative combinations of color and sets. There are contented, simple, singing people who cheer as Yolanda arrives at her home as if she were a princess and greet her with flowers. Her family practically has a monopoly on the nation and they throw flowers? I would have thought at least on person would have thrown a brick or two.

Contrasted with this pastoral bucolicism (there is a deer in her garden) is the riotous color palette, an unique nightmare sequence where Johnny works out his conflicting greed and attraction to her (with laundry ladies, sheets, gold, a snooty British racing crowd, treasure in a chest and Yolanda looking like a Greek stature offering him her money and entangling him in her dress).

And I can’t figure out Patria’s religion. It initially looks Catholic, but we only see her praying to her guardian angel. And later we see people paying reverence to a stature of Michael as it is led into a church during a carnival. Do these people worship angels? Just a fanciful question.

Fancy and whimsy personify this movie. What it lacks is a slight edge, something to give it a bit of tension. It also lacks sufficient dancing, something generally essential to the success of a Fred Astaire film. Which I thought was too bad, because Lucille Bremer is actually one of his more skilled and accomplished dance partners. But apart from the nightmare sequence and a brief dance while Johnny plays the harp, there is only one, admittedly fantastic, dance at the end called “Coffee Time.”

"Coffee Time"

“Coffee Time”

The cast is all good playing eccentric characters. Frank Morgan is a bit more subdued than usual. My favorite line of his is when he and Johnny are stopped by the police and deny their identity. When the police say they recognize them, he claims that “we don’t look like this.” Mildred Natwick plays Yolanda’s batty aunt. Since she was in charge of Yolanda’s fortune while she was in school, it’s a wonder the Aquaviva monopoly is doing as well as it is, but perhaps she hides her business acumen under eccentricity as part of a disarming persona? Leon Ames plays, for once, not a father of anyone. He is a mysterious, slightly mischievous stranger who seems to be looking out for Yolanda (most people will guess his real identity from the moment they first see him).

It’s not as bad as its reputation, though it will appeal to very specific tastes: devoted fans of Fred Astaire, musicals, visually imaginative Technicolor and fantasy. It’s somewhat in the genre of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Bishop’s Wife, where celestial beings interact with humans, but more whimsical and less realistic. It just doesn’t quite gel.

This trailer does not do the color justice.

A truly fantastic dance: “Coffee Time”

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2015 in Movies

 

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A Matter of Life and Death (1946) – also released as Stairway to Heaven

download (1)A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven) is a fantasy of whimsy, romance and a message. The message is a promotion of British and American harmony after WWII. I am curious  to know what the state of relations between American and Britain was that they felt they needed to make this movie. But whatever the political motivations for the film, it remains a lovely fantasy romance, somewhat in the vein of Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed their production company, The Archers, in 1939, and directed, wrote and produced some of Britain’s loveliest, most romantic, imaginative and powerful movies: Red ShoesI Know Where I’m Going!The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. The latter two are especial favorites of mine, but A Matter of Life and Death could be right up there (interestingly, my favorites all have one thing in common, actor Roger Livesey). The movie also marked the return to movies of David Niven, who had left Hollywood for England and enlisted in the army in 1939.

But the film begins as the war was still going on in 1945. Squadron Leader Peter Carter (David Niven) is flying his bomber back to England. But the engine’s on fire and he’s lost his landing gear. He long since ordered his men to leave the plane, except Bob (Robert Coote), who died. He has two choices, fry or jump…even though he does not have a parachute. He chooses jumping. But an American radio operator, June (Kim Hunter), manages to contact him and they talk as his plane is flying down. She wants to find a way to help him, but he wants someone to talk to in his last minutes, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh, asking if she’ll send a telegram to his mother telling her that he always loved her, though he never expressed it, wanting to know where June was born (Boston) and so on. There’s no music; it’s one of those breathlessly poetic moments with two strangers making a human connection in the face of death.

David Niven and Kim Hunter

David Niven and Kim Hunter

Peter jumps from the plane and is sure that he’s dead. But in the afterlife (Powell and Pressburger were careful not to ever mention heaven; they felt it was too limited a definition for this film) Bob is waiting for Peter and when he doesn’t show up, the afterlife attendants must figure out what went wrong. As in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, there has been a mistake. Conductor 71 (Marius Goring – a French aristocrat who lost his head, though it seems to be back on now) lost sight of Peter in the fog and missed him. Instead of being conducted upwards, Peter is now wandering around on earth.

Peter and June soon meet and fall in love instantly (they really fell in love when they heard each other’s voice). But Peter keeps having what may be hallucinations. He sees Conductor 71, who asks him to kindly come with him to the afterlife. Peter refuses. He says his time may have been up, but through no fault of his own, a mistake was made and now he’s fallen in love. Things are different and he demands to be allowed to stay. Peter also has headaches and June is concerned. She asks Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) to help, who diagnoses a brain injury.

But Peter has been granted a trial in the afterlife to justify his right to go on living. He will be prosecuted by Abraham Fallon (Raymond Massey), an American patriot from Boston who was the first man to be shot by a redcoat during the American Revolution. He hates the British and especially hates the fact that an Englishman has fallen in love with a girl from Boston. Peter is told that he can choose anyone he wants to defend him, as long as they are dead. But Peter cannot decide who he wants and Dr. Reeves is afraid that his time is running out and they need to operate soon.

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

Conductor 71, Peter, Dr. Reeves and June

The film culminates with a trial where the question at stake is whether or not Peter and June really love each other and should be allowed to be together. Is love stronger than the law of the universe? Powell and Pressburger seem to be going out of their way to show that Americans are all right…a little young, less educated, less poetic, and more energetic, but with values that aren’t so different from Britain’s. The directors are even quite willing to poke a little fun at themselves and point to some of their shortcomings, like colonialism. The jury is requested to be made of up Americans. Though good old fashioned British values are still very much in evidence with their rich literary history (represented by the erudite and imaginative Peter, who is a poet) and laws. The setting of the earth part of the film is in that very British country village that can be found in many a British movie and novel.

There is a funny parody of British and American culture when Fallon turns on a radio to demonstrate the state of British society. An extremely dry British voice comes on, commenting dully on the weather, cricket and how emblematic this scene is of England. Peter’s counsel responds by tuning into an American station, which features a somewhat juvenile American pop song.

But the film also goes out of its way to be inclusive, showing people in the afterlife from history and the present, from all parts of American and British life (blacks and whites, representatives of the British Empire, American immigrants from all around the world). It is left ambiguous if the afterlife sequences, Conductor 71 or the trial really happened, however. Dr. Reeves believes they are hallucinations and the product of an imaginative mind.

imagesAll the afterlife sequences are filmed in black and white, whereas the scenes on earth are in Technicolor. There is a lovely moment when Conductor 71 is looking at the rose on his coat in black and white and it gradually shades into vibrant color and Conductor 71 is now standing on earth, amidst a riot of flowers and colors where Peter and June are sitting. “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” he says. This works in reverse when Peter’s counsel capture a tear from June and store it on Conductor 71’s rose to use as evidence that June loves Peter. The rose goes from Technicolor back into black and white, with the tear on it.

The Technicolor is stunning and must have been even more so on a big screen. It does suggest, whether the afterlife sequences are real or not, that life on earth is where love, life, vibrancy and feeling are. It’s contrasted with the black and white bureaucratic other world, though it’s still a whimsical other world. And although the film begins with an exploration of the vast cosmos, demonstrating how small earth is, it still gives the sense that earth is more vibrantly alive than anything else. And although it was an accident that Peter didn’t die, it seems as if it were fated to be so, that he and June would fall in love.

The actors are fantastic. David Niven exactly embodies the RAF pilot, the Oxford student who interrupted his education to fight and faces danger sangfroid. Kim is warm as the American who has easily navigated the new environment of England. I’ve only seen Roger Livesey in a few movies, but loved him in everyone of them, representing in this film the wise and philosophic perspective. And Marius Goring is a hoot as Conductor 71, a whimsical figure, sentimental about love, likes chess and is engaged in a figurative match with Peter in his various attempts to trick or lure him into coming with him.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2015 in Movies

 

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