There are not many movies about Heaven, but of those that exist, one often senses a feeling of diffidence on the part of those who produced them. The reason for this, I suspect, is twofold. First, it is difficult to present Heaven in a way that makes it as appealing as the Eternal Abode is supposed to be. Second, religion is a sensitive subject, and they don’t want to offend anyone. To this end, those that produce such movies may attempt to disarm their audiences in a variety of ways.
One such way is to present the story as a dream or hallucination. For example, in The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Heaven is merely dreamt by a trumpeter, and in Stairway to Heaven (1946), there is the suggestion that the story we see is the hallucination of a British pilot. A second way of disarming the audience is through an exculpatory prologue, a disclaimer to the effect that the movie is not being presented as something factual, as if that were not obvious, but as merely a figment. This device was also used in Stairway to Heaven. Finally, the movies tend to be comedies, so silly that no one is likely to take them seriously. Here Comes Mr. Jordan utilizes the last two of these techniques. It is indeed a comedy, and it starts with a prologue, beginning with “We heard a story…,” where the “we” has no antecedent, but presumably refers to those who made this movie, asserting that the story is a yarn that someone told them, and they thought it was so interesting that they just had to turn it into a movie.
The main character of this movie is Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery), a heavyweight prize fighter who plays the saxophone as a hobby. I have never played a wind instrument, but somehow I just don’t think being smashed in the mouth on a regular basis would be good for one’s embouchure. But maybe that explains why he plays it so badly. Anyway, his manager is Max Corkle (James Gleason), the one who the prologue says told this story. Max tells Joe not to fly his plane to New York, because it is too dangerous, but Joe pooh-poohs his concerns and decides to fly his plane anyway. I don’t suppose I have to tell you that the plane crashes.
Joe finds himself among the souls of the departed, souls that are walking on clouds and are boarding a plane that will take them to their final destination, presumably either Heaven or Hell, depending on the situation. This is another dodge. Let’s give Joe the benefit of the doubt and assume that his final destination is Heaven. As noted above, it is difficult to present Heaven as someplace you might want to be. So, rather than have us see the place and be disappointed, we only get to see the plane that will take him there.
One would think that no technology at all would be necessary in the world of the spirit, but somehow the technology so envisioned in Heaven is often that presently available on Earth. That is why, in the Book of Revelation, it is said that Jesus will use a sword to smite nations. We might give that a pass, but it is downright ludicrous when Satan uses cannons to fight the good angels in Paradise Lost. Anyway, the airplane was still a pretty impressive piece of technology in 1941, when this movie was made, so that may explain why there are airplanes in this movie, both the one in which Joe dies and the one that transports people to Heaven or Hell. It was a technological improvement over the mode of afterworld transportation used in Liliom (1930), which was a train. On the other hand, the train was good enough for The Good Place (2016-2020).
But only a handful of people seem to be boarding that plane. Now, based on the population of the Earth in 1941, I estimate that about fifty thousand people died every day at that time, so one would have expected teeming masses instead. And about this time you are probably thinking that I am taking this movie way too seriously. But I did this to illustrate my earlier point, that these movies are given a frivolous tone so that either people like me will not bother to analyze them, or that others will dismiss us as being pedantic if we do. Besides, the way I figure it, any movie that got the Academy Award for Best Story and also for Best Adapted Screenplay entitles me to criticize it for not making much sense. However, I will try not to nitpick. I will not, for example, ask if spending eternity checking off names before people get on a plane is as dreary for Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) as I would imagine it to be. Instead, let us consider some of the more serious absurdities.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of this movie is Joe’s mentality. That Joe is incredulous when he is told by Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) that he has died is understandable. But when he is finally convinced of this, his reaction is incredible. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I would be awed by my encounter with Eternity. “So this stuff about God and the immortal soul is true after all,” I would be saying to myself in amazement. As an atheist, I suppose it is only to be expected that I would be stunned, but I dare say that even the most devout would be almost in disbelief to find out that their hopes for an afterlife had actually been realized.
Joe does not care about any of this, however. His only concern is that he was supposed to fight for the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World. And now that he is dead, his chance at the title bout is over. Or is it? No, it seems that Messenger 7013 messed up and removed Joe’s soul from his body before he crashed, thereby not allowing Joe to pull the plane out of its dive. In fact, Mr. Jordan discovers that Joe was not supposed to die for another fifty years. Joe is delighted to find that he will be returned to Earth. Does this attitude not slight Heaven, assuming that is Joe’s destination? It is as if Joe said, “Thank God I won’t have to go to Heaven for another fifty years!” But that is a common attitude in movies about Heaven, to wit, that notwithstanding the fact that being in Heaven is supposed to be the most perfect form of existence a soul can aspire to, life on Earth is always thought to be preferable, much more preferable.
Because Joe’s body was cremated, a substitute will have to be found. Joe wants a body that will allow him to become Heavyweight Champion of the World, but they need one that is fresh. And of those that have recently died or are about to, a Mr. Farnsworth seems to be a good choice. Mr. Farnsworth is a wealthy man who is in the process of being held under the water in his bathtub by his wife and his male secretary. Joe doesn’t much care for the Farnsworth body, however, until he gets an eyeful of Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes), the daughter of a man who unfairly ended up going to prison on account of Farnsworth’s illegal financial activity.
Joe is torn. What is more important to him, getting to be Heavyweight Champion of the World, or marrying this woman he has fallen in love with? Having just discovered the secret of Eternity, all Joe cares about is love and fame. Now, you might say that Heaven can wait. After all, Joe will get there eventually, so he might as well have some fun first. Or will he? If I had just found out that there really is a God, I would, as I have already said, be stunned. But once I recovered from the shock and found out that I was going to have to go back to Earth, my question to Mr. Jordan, asked with much fear and trembling, would be whether there was a Hell, and if so, what I would need to do to stay out of it. Nothing could be more important than that, certainly not boxing fame or the love of a woman. Therefore, I would certainly want to know what the rules are for staying out of Hell. Do I need to turn the other cheek? That might be something of a disadvantage in the boxing ring. Am I already in trouble for looking at Bette with lust in my heart?
But as I said, Joe’s simplistic mentality does not think about such things. Instead, he decides he can have both love and fame by being Farnsworth, saving Bette’s father from prison, courting her, and at the same time, building up his body to get in shape to enter the ring. But when he becomes Farnsworth, he still looks like Joe. To Joe and to us, that is, not to everyone else. This is so Robert Montgomery can continue acting the part. I think it would have been more interesting to see a different actor take over at this point, allowing us to see how Joe’s soul operates within Farnsworth’s body, but the plot must conform to the needs of the actor who is the star of this movie.
In order to get back in shape, Joe gets in touch with Max. At first, Max does not believe him, but the saxophone convinces him. In other words, the function of the saxophone in this movie is to act as an attribute. Since Joe keeps changing bodies, the only way Max can identify him is through this musical instrument. I guess the saxophone’s soul survived the plane crash too.
Unfortunately for Joe, there is another thing he can’t seem to get through his punchy head, which is that there is no such thing as free will, for all has been ordained by God in advance. Actually, that is not quite right. One of the interesting things about a lot of Heaven movies is the way they never talk about God. Mr. Jordan and the Messenger keep using the passive voice, saying that this or that was “meant to be” rather than saying, “God meant things to be that way.” This is another dodge used by those who produce movies about Heaven. It is so God cannot be blamed. Or rather, it is so that the producers of this movie cannot be blamed for making God responsible for evil.
Joseph Breen, who was in charge of enforcing the Production Code, in addition to expressing his concerns about the use of religious concepts for humorous effect, cautioned that “certain religious groups will resent any expressed opinion on the controversial topic of predestination,” as cited by Gerald Gardner in The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office 1934 to 1968. It seems pretty clear to me that with all this talk about how things were meant to be, the movie comes down on the side of predestination. Kent Turner of film-forward.com says it is “one of the few rom-coms expressly for Presbyterians.” But I guess the use of the passive voice was enough to satisfy Breen with the final product.
The particular evil in question for which God must not be blamed is the murder of Farnsworth. The first attempt at murder by his wife and secretary failed, but on the second attempt, they succeed. It is not clear whether Mr. Jordan deliberately misled Joe into thinking he could be Farnsworth for fifty years, or whether Mr. Jordan subsequently found out that Farnsworth would soon be murdered. Mr. Jordan is always going around with a superior, smug look on his face, as if he knows everything, so one suspects he was being cute about letting Joe think he could be Farnsworth long enough to win the title and marry Bette.
Just before Farnsworth is to be murdered, Joe is told that remaining in Farnsworth’s body was not meant to be, as if there were some impersonal destiny that ruled the world. But suppose instead that Mr. Jordan told Joe that he would not be able to continue using Farnsworth’s body because God wants Farnsworth to be murdered. The audience would be appalled. And yet, that is the implication. However, what is implied by a movie and what is explicitly stated are two different things. Therefore, the issue is completely skirted by not referring to God at all.
Fortunately for Joe, a prize fighter named Murdock, whom Joe was supposed to fight, gets shot dead by gangsters right there in the ring during the title bout because he refused to throw the fight. That way the other guy will win the fight, and the gangsters will get to collect on their bets. Those gangsters! They are so clever. But it’s a break for Joe. He gets to enter Murdock’s body, come alive at the count of nine, get up and win the fight. But Joe figures there’s no glory in occupying Murdock’s body for a few seconds, just long enough to win a fight, so he wants another body that he can really call his own.
Mr. Jordan, however, washes away all memory of his being Joe or Farnsworth. He now occupies Murdock’s body as if he really were Murdock. The only one left with any memory of all this is Max, who tells the police where the body of Farnsworth can be found, much in the way that you or I might reveal where the body of a murdered man had been hidden without fear that the police might suspect that we had something to do with it.
The whole idea of finding another body for Joe was that he would otherwise be cheated out of another fifty years of life. But it is Murdock’s body with Murdock’s brain he supposedly gets, and it has none of Joe’s memories. As Leibniz once said, if you tell me that when I die, I will be reborn into another body, but will have no memory of my present life, then you might as well tell me that when I die, someone else will be born. In short, Joe has still been cheated out of the rest of his life, while it is Murdock who gets revived, wins the title bout, and gets the girl. Murdock and Bette have this feeling of having known each other before, but I don’t think Leibniz would have been impressed. I know I’m not.
Part 2 of this review, which will cover the remakes, will be posted tomorrow.