Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941, Columbia Pictures. Starring Robert Montgomery, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes. Directed by Alexander Hall. B&W, 93 minutes.
Death has come about 50 years too soon for boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) when well-meaning but novice Angel 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) takes his soul, believing there’s no way he could have survived an imminent plane crash. Pendleton’s untimely arrival in heaven is confirmed to be a mistake by Angel 7013’s superior, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), but by the time they arrive on earth to place Joe back in his body, his trainer and closest friend, Max Corkle (James Gleason) has had him cremated.
Thus begins the search for the perfect new body, one that is “in the pink.” Despite his reservations, Joe ends up being placed in the less-than-trim physique of an unscrupulous millionaire, Bruce Farnsworth, who has just been murdered by his wife (Rita Johnson) and personal assistant (John Emery). Farnsworth, it turns out, has cheated thousands out of their hard-earned money, and Joe sets out to right the situation.
He’s motivated in part to do so by the presence of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), whose father has paid a high price for Farnsworth’s deceit. Joe, in the guise of Bruce Farnsworth*, and Bette begin to fall for each other, but Bette doesn’t know the truth about his identity.
Destiny has its place, we learn, and Joe was destined for…certain outcomes. This is an original and fresh plot line, even after so many remakes (including the fine film Heaven Can Wait , starring Warren Beatty). The story is further enhanced by the top-notch performances of this cast, in particular Montgomery, who, as Joe Pendleton, retains a justifiable, but not annoying, anger and bewilderment at the unfairness of the entire situation.
Initially, Montgomery was unhappy about being loaned out from MGM to Columbia, as the latter studio was known as “poverty row” amongst actors. The studio’s first choice for the role was Cary Grant, but Montgomery’s pugnacious performance was quite possibly better suited to the character. (This was not the only role in which Montgomery was second choice to Grant. That same year, Montgomery was given the lead in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, starring with Carole Lombard.)
Grant may not have played the role onscreen, but he did later play Joe Pendleton in a radio broadcast of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and decades later seriously considered the role of “Mr. Jordan” in Heaven Can Wait, which was made more than ten years after he retired from films.
The film won the Academy Awards for Best Writing, Original Story and Best Writing, Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture; Best Actor in a Leading Role (Montgomery); Best Director; Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Gleason); and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
Claude Rains and James Gleason are in top form, indeed, the entire supporting cast is superb. This is a somewhat absurd story that could have been a colossal flop without a witty script, sharp comic pace and quality performances. Instead it is a true classic and a great choice for the whole family.