HereComesMrJordancoverGrade: B/B-
Entire family: No
1941, 91 min., Black-and-white
Criterion Collection
Not rated (would be PG for mild violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: B+
Amazon link

Five years before apprentice angel Clarence would try to convince George Bailey that It’s a Wonderful Life, chief angel Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) tried to make amends when an underling mistakenly snatched a prizefighter 51 years before he was supposed to die.

If there’s a more outlandish premise behind a Hollywood comedy, I haven’t come across it. Robert Montgomery (whose daughter, Elizabeth, would star in a supernatural comedy of her own 23 years later—TV’s Bewitched) is cast as boxer Joe Pendleton, whose hobbies are playing the saxophone (badly) and flying his private plane. It’s the latter that gets him into trouble, and when a prickly new angel (Edward Everett Horton) plucks him from the plane before a crash, thinking to spare him the final pain, it turns out that the boxer would really have survived. In heaven, Mr. Jordan instructs the new angel to return Joe to his body. That’s when things get outrageously complicated. It turns out that Joe’s fight manager, Max Corkle (James Gleason), had his body quickly cremated, so there’s no body for him to return to. Mr. Jordan’s solution: find him a suitable body from someone slated to die soon.

If it were a little more fast-paced and the dialogue overlapping, Here Comes Mr. Jordan would play like a screwball comedy. As is, there are plenty of scenes that feel absurdist enough to qualify, and just as much in the way of clever writing. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a surprisingly solid fantasy-comedy-romance that still entertains, despite some cheesy cloud scenes featuring an airplane transporting people to their final destinations.

HereComesMrJordanscreenMontgomery is amiable enough as Joe, a plain-talking guy set on becoming heavyweight champion of the world. He isn’t about to let some heavenly mistake get in the way of his destiny, and he isn’t about to accept any body that isn’t “in the pink.” But the film turns most interesting when Mr. Jordan convinces Joe to inhabit the body of a crooked millionaire whose wife (Rita Johnson) and private secretary (John Emery) have just drugged and drowned him in his bathtub. It adds a new wrinkle to a familiar genre, and how fun is it to see the two murderers’ faces when Joe-as-Farnsworth walks out of that bathroom? But that’s only the beginning. Complicating Joe’s drive for a championship body is the instant attraction he feels for a young woman (Evelyn Keyes) whose father Farnsworth framed to take the fall for a phony bond swindle, and Mr. Jordan’s prodding to get him to do something about it before the scheming would-be murderers strike again.

Very few films have plots that are unique, and for that reason alone families with older children (with a tolerance for black-and-white movies) may enjoy this screen version of the stage play Heaven Can Wait—also the title of a 1978 Warren Beatty remake. The angel and body-swapping do seem more charming and infinitely better suited to the Forties and black-and-white. When the film was released, America hadn’t yet entered WWII, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a pleasant, even hopeful diversion from the threat of war.

Joe Pendleton is blunt and unrefined, often a little slow on the uptake, but he’s also a genuinely nice guy who just wants what’s coming to him. His earnestness and honesty is infectious. When he tries to communicate his situation and gets caught up in other people’s lives, you can’ help but feel for him. That, even more than the unique plot, is what makes Here Comes Mr. Jordan resonate as an example of classic Hollywood filmmaking. It can feel slow-moving at times and the subject matter probably won’t interest children under age 14, but it’s still worth watching, even 70 years later.