Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Director: Alexander Hall / Screenplay: Sidney Bushman & Seton Miller (from stage play by Harry Segall) / Editing: Viola Lawrence / DP: Joseph Walker / Music: Frederick Hollander
Cast: Robert Montgomery / Evelyn Keyes / Claude Rains / Rita Johnson / Edward Everett Horton / James Gleason / John Emory / Halliwell Hobbes
Fake it ’til You Make it…
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is another of those movies that turn out to be greater than the sum of their parts. If you’re familiar with the alchemy of movies, it’s a rare, but noted outcome that delivered classics such as Casablanca (1942) and Apocalypse Now (1979); all movies that transcended their prospects.
‘Jordan, then, was based on a successful stage-play by Henry Segall and given to a pair of Columbia’s in-house writers (Sid Buchanan & Seton Miller), who delivered a boilerplate adaptation, offering little in the way of ‘razzle-dazzle’. No big-budget effects here, for Columbia was still a minor player at the time and was suffering (along with the major studios), ever since war in Europe had dampened wider distribution for their movies.
The story is surprisingly complicated once you get into it: Joe Pendleton is a prize fighter, in-line for a shot at ‘the big time’, who trains in ‘Pleasant Valley’. He’s given life (excuse the pun) by Robert Montgomery with evident enthusiasm which, I surmise, is possibly because for much of his career to that point, he’d had to play second fiddle to a string of leading ladies, for whom he was little more than a well-tailored arm to lean on. He’s got a lovable trainer, too: the deliriously named Max Corkle, given spirit by James Gleason; it’s Corkle who announces that the ‘champ’s’ training camp is to move from the valley, back to NYC in readiness for the fight. Rather than take the ‘A-train’ with everyone else, Joe decides to fly his own plane…
It’s no surprise to anyone watching the picture, that this crate falls from the sky due to mechanical failure: and all whilst Joe practises on his ‘lucky’ saxophone; the Universe doing its utmost to remind us of the follies of multitasking.
When next we see him, he’s in the company of Messenger 7013; one of many uniformed guides meeting new arrivals to the ‘next realm’; the pilot’s ‘wings’ on the jacket, being the closest we’re going to get to a suggestion of an ‘angel’. The wonderfully diffident & coy Edward Everett Horton is perfectly cast here, fielding Joe’s endless questions and faux-pas’ with barely concealed disdain. 7013 guides Joe across a blank-walled soundstage with a billowing carpet of dry ice, towards a celestial aircraft. Having not yet accepted he’s actually, err, dead, his line of questioning shifts to the possibility of hitching a ride back to New York…
What is it with visions of ‘Heaven’ in film, especially of this period? It’s all wafting clouds, and non-denominational iconography, so as to keep things strictly neutral. I get it: everyone’s vision of the afterlife will differ from another’s, so this gives them a blank canvas on which to project, but what’s with the ubiquitous harp recital for a soundtrack? For all that, given the movie’s slim budget, this suits just as well.
To explain the situation to Joe, is Mr. Jordan, played by the effortlessly suave Claude Rains who looks like he’s coasting here, yet still manages to make even that look good. The camera loves him, but loves his mellifluous English accent even more, as during a run of prosaic (and indulgent) two-shots, Mr. Jordan is informed by 7013 of a wrinkle in Joe’s case. Turns out that 7013 had actually plucked him from the doomed aircraft, a moment before impact, with the result that his death hadn’t ‘officially registered’: Joe’s name isn’t on the clipboard; a nod to jobsworths everywhere…
This is now the movie: since Joe’s body has been presumptively (though not unreasonably) cremated by Corkle (in the absence of Joe’s, you know, family), Mr. Jordan has to find a suitable donor for Joe’s spirit to, err, ‘possess’. Joe’s a boxer, requiring a specific physique, so the shortlist of suitable candidates is whittled away off-screen, until we enter the palatial home of one Bruce Farnsworth.
Being disembodied, both Joe & Mr. Jordan waft inside unseen and wait in the drawing room, as Mr. Jordan explains, quite casually, that Farnsworth is, at that moment, being drowned in his bath-tub, by his treacherous wife Julia (a slinky Rita Johnson) and her lover (and Farnsworth’s secretary), Tony Abbott (a slick John Emory). I admired the studied detachment in Jordan’s dialogue during this sequence. If he’s been doing this job for as long as he hints at, then tragedies such as this would be almost commonplace, which leaves Joe’s discomfort all the more revealing about his true nature. The script is working hard to establish that, while a body might soon be available, Joe’s not cock-a-hoop that someone has to die first… So there’s a moral angle working here. Besides, there’s a sweetener in the deal, in the form of Evelyn Keyes as Bette Logan; the daughter of one of Farnsworth’s clients, who’s now in-jail, thanks to some vague ‘fraud’ perpetrated by Farnsworth behind her father’s back.
She’s here to appeal to Farnsworth’s better nature, so it’s handy that, even as a ghost, Joe finds her so attractive on first sight; gives hope to us all, doesn’t it? So this then is Joe’s choice: insist to Jordan that they move on to another body better suited to that of a boxer’s life, or stick around and make the best of it, if it means a chance to get to know Bette: Hmm.
While we leave him thinking, it’s a good opportunity to talk a little about some of the philosophical aspects the movie is smuggling-in. Things like questions of identity. Transmutation. The notion of an accelerated reincarnation as a reward for celestial mistakes or good behaviour; itself thrown into-question when you realise that even in Heaven, mistakes can be made: look at how one of the Messengers is ticked-off by Mr. Jordan for not reading the roster of passengers correctly…
Anyhow: Guess which option Joe picks?
Not that he has much time in which to make up his mind. The butler, Sisk (a droll Halliwell Hobbes) is already on his way up to the bathroom to announce Bette’s arrival. He’s either going to find a dead body or…
Well, I’m sure you’re ahead of me. The gears of the script crunch, as the reanimated Bruce / Joe now plays the cliché of looking in the bathroom mirror. But, rather than see someone ELSE, Joe still sees Joe. Mr. Jordan explains it thus: that what Joe sees through these new eyes IS JOE; everyone else will see Bruce Farnsworth… Well, at least the Producers didn’t have to cast another (expensive) lead as Farnsworth!
Fresh from the tub, Joe / Bruce triggers the best scene in the movie as he takes-in his wife and her lover, minutes after they drowned him; wife Julia really does look like she’s seen a ghost. It’s a set-up that Joe soon eases-into; using Farnsworth’s money to make good on the fraud situation (thus winning-over Bette) and realising that he could train Farnsworth’s body, using all he knows about boxing, to give him another shot at the title. After all, Mr. Jordan had let slip that Joe was destined to be a ‘world champion’ someday. Therefore, the reasonable conclusion, is that it’ll be achieved in Farnsworth’s body.
Right? Joe even goes to the trouble of bringing over Corkle and convincing him that, lurking within the pampered banker’s form, really is his much-missed protégé. With that done, he has Abbot write a cheque to secure the first ‘comeback fight’: a decision that pushes the snakes in the grass to try again; this time with a revolver fired at point-blank range, just to be sure…
Luckily, Mr. Jordan’s there to find ‘the right body’ at long-last, thus elegantly fulfilling Joe’s spiritual destiny and deliver a mawkish, extended meet-cute with Bette all in one fell swoop.
Criticisms of a film generally begin with the Director but, in this case, Alexander Hall scarcely puts a foot wrong. Working under-contract to Columbia, Hall was something of a journeyman behind the camera, demonstrating few flourishes or individual style. His film rolls along with perfunctory innocence; come to think of it, all crafts are noticeable by their vanilla-tinged competence on this picture…
The stars, all minor-league bar-Rains, do enough to chivvy things along but for this reviewer, I think proceedings are overly complicated by the number of murders (two, plus a near-miss) that are needed to keep things on-track for Joe. I never bought the cost-cutting solution given to explain Joe’s reflection either and the movie plays fast and loose with the ‘rules’ of showing non-corporealism on-screen. For instance, there are some scenes where characters are shown walking through open doorways (because they have to) or through doors (because the budget only stretched to one or two overlaid fade-outs). There’s no consistency. At some points, ‘Jordan is seen flicking through a book of sheet music, which suggests a degree of physical interaction not earned throughout the picture. And what’s with the dematerialising saxophone?
If it sounds like nit-picking, or that I’m overthinking what is little more than a light-hearted soufflé, then so be it, but there are rules for building and sustaining certain cinematic tropes, to ensure their credibility. Break them and the fiction you’re striving to build, dissolves; you stop investing emotional capital.
With all that said, let’s consider ‘Jordan as a movie. Does it work? Yes. Just about.
It also touches on the state of the World, as it was in the year it was shot, 1941. The ’States would only join WWII in December that year, but that Summer had seen Nazi Germany launch its invasion of the Soviet Union. There was also war in Finland and the Far East which, if you listen closely, explains why the other Messengers are, at the beginning, announcing ‘passengers’ from those territories. This is Hollywood, subconsciously or no, laying the ground for inevitable American involvement; one in which these dreamy Elysian fields will soon echo with more familiar accents.
Robert Montgomery would soon leave the acting profession and join the U.S. Navy. Hollywood would be co-opted as an unofficial branch of Government, producing patriotic fare for the home market and ‘Jordan would find an appreciative repeat audience and do good business for Columbia, spawning a whole raft of remakes and alternate approaches to the basic concept.
The British film-makers Powell & Pressburger, would later revisit the notion themselves, in 1946, with A Matter of Life and Death, in which David Niven’s soul is put on trial, weighed against the love of a good woman. It’s a definitive classic, brimming with ideas, invention and insight into the human condition, which is more than can be said of ‘Jordan.
For, I fear, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a classic only in its domestic market, where its ‘high-concept’ blend of schmaltzy sentimentality and wish-fulfilment still resonates. But subject it to a little scrutiny and the cracks soon appear…
Joe: ‘I don’t want anyone’s body. I want my body!’
Messenger 7013: ‘Oh, Mr. Pendleton, don’t be so fussy. After all, what is a body? Just a physical covering, that’s all. Worth, chemically, about thirty-two cents!’