Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941, Alexander Hall)
This is a fitfully amusing film, somewhat in the vein of Preston Sturges’ work, that surprises with its air of sardonic humor and black comic cynicism given its somewhat rote squeaky clean premise, which sounds like the setup for a bad sitcom three decades later: a saxophone-playing boxer with a private plane he flies himself, good at the boxing part but pretty bad at the other two things, crashes and gets prematurely left in deathly purgatory by an incompetent angel played by Edward Everett Horton, naturally, then is permitted to find a new body by boss death panel supervisor Claude Rains. The technique for coping with this gaffe is hardly bloodless; it requires the tracking down of a fresh corpse for wily young Joe (Robert Montgomery) to assume. Hilarity ensues, sort of, though there’s just as much desperate awkwardness.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan — the title refers to Rains’ scowling but helpful guardian — is helped a lot by Montgomery’s general affability, which allows him to believably embody three different men (sort of) in order to sell the film’s utterly preposterous premise, later cribbed by not just The Twilight Zone and The X-Files but (in a sense) Being John Malkovich. Though it existed in a time before television pilots were a thing, it truly does feel like one; it’s easy to imagine Montgomery assuming a different body week after week, though it might have proven difficult to find reasons for him to get killed so regularly. It’s bizarre enough in ninety-four minutes that the guy dies twice in extremely improbable ways, helps solve his own murder once, and is able to find two recently killed parties, one of whom was a friend of his.
Alexander Hall’s film is quite a bit sharper than you’d expect for one that hinges entirely on guardian angels giving people new bodies. But as enjoyably willing as it is to go out on a nutty limb for its own premise, one’s initial apprehension about the tedium of Rains hovering around and Horton bumbling isn’t wholly unjustified. It is a tiresome idea even if it is handled with unusual aplomb, and the lurching of Montgomery’s Joe is too constant for us to feel entirely acquainted with him as a character, which is fatal. It’s sad that Rains and Horton go to waste in a comedy like this since both can be very funny (whereas James Gleason is a true joy in all his chronic confusion), but the film’s not bereft of either the whimsical laughs you expect and the more cutting, unexpected kind that you’d anticipate more from something of Billy Wilder’s.
Wilder, though, would have run farther with the edgy weirdness at the periphery of this script (and in his hands, it wouldn’t have faltered so badly after its climax). Having gentle, unthreateningly masculine Joe — we meet him underneath coy title cards playing sax on a plane, so of course we like him right away — come back as an asshole banking executive is an admirably kooky conceit in itself. That he’s just been murdered by his wife and his assistant in a bathtub makes it more surreal yet; when he walks out (as Robert Montgomery still, presumably so the audience doesn’t get confused, though I’m not sure that doesn’t backfire) and stuns everyone who thinks they’ve just killed him, it’s a delightfully strange moment: Diabolique in reverse. While it’s downright Capraesque for Joe to then use his banking power for Good rather than Evil, doing a bunch of kind-hearted nonsense because he can, that’s still in this remarkable context an act of subversion.
These moments of stark, sometimes bracingly modernist satire just poke through the things this typically scrappy Columbia production feels obligated to do — all that silly boxing and love stuff so inevitable for Hollywood comedies of this period. (The romantic elements are particularly off-putting here; it’s so difficult to shoehorn a love story into this plot, it doesn’t seem like it would’ve been worth the trouble, but the studios were emphatic about finding a way back then.) Despite its many champions and the fact that it’s been remade twice (as Heaven Can Wait and Down to Earth) and even earned a sequel (another movie confusingly named Down to Earth), this isn’t particularly special, but it’s a decently-written and often admirably understated diversion.