Even if you’ve never seen Alexander Hall’s 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan, chances are you’re familiar with its story, which is based on the unproduced play Heaven Can Wait. Its 1947 sequel Down to Earth in turn inspired the disastrous 1980 musical Xanadu. Here Comes Mr. Jordan was also remade twice—by Warren Beatty in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait and then in 2001 by Chris Rock as Down to Earth.
On loan to Columbia from MGM, Robert Montgomery stars as Brooklyn boxer Joe Pendleton (dubbed the “Flying Pug”), who dies in a plane crash on his way to fight in the championship. Up in heaven, it’s revealed there was a mistake, a the angel (Edward Everett Horton) who brought him up made an assumption and took him prematurely. Pendleton’s body is unfortunately cremated before he can be restored in it, so a more powerful angel, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), agrees to help Pendleton find a new body. There’s murder, romance, and other hijinks as Pendleton tries to get his old life back through another man’s skin, but it all comes with a sincerity that makes the film feel like something special rather than just another studio comedy.
A key part of that effect is due to Montgomery’s performance as Pendleton. As an audience, we’re usually a few steps in regards to the fantastical premise, so it would be easy to characterize him as a quirky idiot. Montgomery never indulges this perspective, instead portraying Pendleton as a simple, but good-hearted, working class guy who’s stuck in a confusing situation.
Rains is cast perfectly as the eminently calm Mr. Jordan, a role he could sleepwalk through and still shine in. Then there’s Horton, the perfect contrast to Rains, as the endlessly anxious and frustrated angel who made that first mistake. Also a standout is James Gleason as Pendleton’s manager Max, the one person that finds out about Pendleton’s body-swap.
Despite Alexander Hall’s generally low profile as a director, and it being a Columbia release, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards (two of which it won). Here Comes Mr. Jordan feels in many ways like that classic example of the studio process gone right, in which all the right elements coincidentally fall into place to produce something special.