Wednesday, June 15, 2016

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN: Blu-ray (Columbia 1941) Criterion Collection

In the first twenty minutes of Alexander Hall’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), we are privy to a prize-fighter in training, an epic plane crash, a mournful wake, a case of mistaken identity, cremation, a savings and loan swindle, and, a murder – to say nothing of those fleeting glimpses into that netherworld and afterlife to which we are all bound someday; complete with slithery fog and twin-engine Cessna, now boarding for the Promised Land. Setting aside the morbidity in this exercise, we have just stepped beyond the surreal bonds of movie-land nirvana, or perhaps, plunged headstrong into an early precursor to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. Yet, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is neither morose nor particularly interested in the supernatural aspects of its fantastic tale, imbued with an impossibly lithe optimism for which a goodly sum of classically-made Hollywood movies remains justly revered. And that’s just for starters.  Our titular hero, Brooklyn pug, Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery, effectively stepping outside his perpetually quaffed and tuxedoed comfort zone), is a very kindred spirit indeed, forced to wander the earth in search of a surrogate for the life accidentally snuffed out by a novice heavenly-sent messenger (Edward Everett Horton). Messenger 7013 spares Joe his final plummet to earth when the tail rudder on his biplane suffers a malfunction. Too bad for both the messenger and his latest inductee, Joe Pendleton was never intended to die – at least, not until of natural causes in 1991 as 7013’s superior, Mr. Jordon (the mellifluous Claude Rains) soon discovers. Tragically, by this time Joe’s body has already been cremated; his passing splashed across every front page headline in New York. Sincerely mourned by his agent and friend, Max Corkle (James Gleason), Joe is given a rather grisly reprieve by Mr. Jordan; a chance to step into the body of another, already marked for entry beyond the pearly gates. 
Exactly, how any of this is supposed to work for the long haul – i.e. a lifetime – and from a practical perspective (I mean, think of all that would have to be re-learned by the incumbent to assume someone else’s identity; also reconsider, that if the marked person is, in fact, supposed to go to heaven, how exactly does replacing his body with another soul befuddle heaven’s bookkeepers?); even from an artistic standpoint, employing virtually no photographic tricks, this remains to be seen; screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller making up the rules, seemingly as they are going along (as in, who can see who and why and for how long; the premise of a person’s eyes being windows into the soul, discernable via long gazes given from people in love, etc. and et al). Buchman and Miller are cribbing from Harry Segall’s original and unproduced play, Heaven Can Wait (no relation whatsoever to the 1943 Fox movie costarring Don Ameche and Gene Tierney); the play, a deliciously clever, yet deceptively feather-weight confection taking great artistic liberties with the Christian worldview of life after death and divine intervention interrupted by ‘the natural order’. Interestingly, given the strength of the Catholic League of Decency and the stringencies of Hollywood’s Production Code, no umbrage to this was taken, although the Code’s Joseph Breen did send Columbia’s chief, Harry Cohn a politely worded memo with a suggestion to play down the ‘preordained’ aspects in the film’s narrative.  
Even so, the picture’s ending is a real mixed bag of emotions; Joe, stripped of virtually all his former self and memories by Mr. Jordan, given a new lease on life to pursue his former career goals but as entirely different man, placed into the body of another prize-fighting champion, is bittersweet to say the least; his unrequited paramour, Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) zeroing in on something Joe’s first replacement body, millionaire banker, Bruce Farnsworth once said, about if ever she should meet a boxer who showed an interest in her she should assume it to be him. Here Comes Mr. Jordan is fairly progressive in its ideologies on reincarnation. For continuity’s sake – also to maximize the drawing power of Bob Montgomery’s stardom – every alter ego in the picture gets played with the same content of character as our Joe Pendleton; Mr. Jordan pointing out to Joe that his former self shall remain visible only to him (and, of course, the audience); Joe’s soul speaking through two physically-bound intermediaries for the rest of the cast; first Farnsworth, then later, the boxer, Murdock.
Okay, let’s run with this. Because part of the miraculous endurance of the picture since, spawning a queer sort of sequel, disguised as the Rita Hayworth musical, Down to Earth (1947) at least two remakes (the most famous, under its original title, Heaven Can Wait, 1978, starring Warren Beatty) and a cottage industry of like-minded imitators throughout the 1940’s (1943’s A Guy Named Joe and 1946’s A Matter of Life and Death the most prominent among them) is owed to the incredible suspension of disbelief immaculately sustained herein. Columbia President, Harry Cohn had initially hoped to persuade Cary Grant to partake of the project; Grant, a free agent, having done some of his most influential work over at Columbia throughout the 1930’s, including the exquisite screwball, The Awful Truth (1937) for director, Leo McCarey; the superb, Holiday (1938) for George Cukor, and, the sublime, Only Angels Have Wings (1939) for Howard Hawks. Alas, Grant turned Cohn down. Mercifully, Robert Montgomery did not, although initially, he too had his misgivings. Indeed, in script form, and even more so in its concretely visualization, Here Comes Mr. Jordan endeavors to be all things to all genres; amalgamating elements of the classic screwball, the romantic comedy, the film noir, the ‘who done it?’ and the sci-fi fantasy film. It could have easily turned to gumbo. Yet, in this case, the blending of thematic elements and genres is so invisible as to successfully straddle that artistic chasm, almost without even trying.
Director Alexander Hall, who by 1941 had built up an enviable list of credits – films, sadly forgotten today, but considered competently manufactured moneymakers in their own time – and, who had come to the task of directing Here Comes Mr. Jordan with plans to wed comedian, Lucille Ball, illustrates a real flair for staging in a way that never immediately calls direct attention to itself. Close-ups always mean something, are used sparingly, and, punctuate the mood of the piece; the camera re-framing action only in support of character movement and motivations within the frame. Still, Hall gets in a lot of interesting camera angles to compliment and show off the lavish sets. Harry Cohn’s Columbia may have been considered a Poverty Row B-studio to the likes of MGM or 2oth Century-Fox, but you would never guess it from the lavishly appointed accoutrements that make up Bruce Farnsworth’s posh New York manor; a towering edifice with crystal chandeliers, expansive lobbies and parlors and a staircase to dwarf anything found outside of Irving Thalberg’s throne room set built for Marie Antoinette (1938). It should also be pointed out that while Cohn could not afford to groom an enviable in-house roster of A-list stars at his beckoned call, and equally had to farm out directorial talent, he staked his entire reputation in the biz on acquiring relatively inexpensive writers; some of the very best in their craft, including Robert Riskin, Ben Hecht, Sidney Buchman and Seton Miller; relying on the strength of their solidly written scripts to entice bigger box office names above the title to partake for less than their usual fee.
Robert Montgomery may have had misgivings about joining the cast of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but he was likely comforted in the knowledge no less an MGM alumni than Clark Gable had begrudgingly made It Happened One Night (1932) as a punishment, loaned to Columbia for Frank Capra – and won his only Oscar to date for his efforts. 1941 was a big year in Hollywood, what with such legendary and iconic movies as Citizen Kane, The Lady Eve, The Maltese Falcon and How Green Was My Valley, to name but a handful, dominating theater marquees. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, and obscenely overlooked for all but two – both won for writing – Here Comes Mr. Jordan solidified Columbia’s newfound faith in producing comedies that, for all intent and purposes, did not conform to the more rigidly outlined structure of the genre being modeled at other studios. Only a year later, director, George Stevens would complement the inherent sophistication of Here Comes Mr. Jordan with The Talk of the Town (1942); like ‘Jordan’ – another property that sprightly bounces all over the map, blending dramatic elements of the crime thriller, noir, screwball and romantic comedy into a seamless mélange of shimmering artistry.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan begins with a fairly oblique and coy title card, in hindsight, perfectly prepping the audience for the ethereal hodgepodge about to follow it. We meet Joe Pendleton in Happy Valley, a place where all is peaceful except for the pugilists rehearsing for their big fights. Joe is a shoe-in for an upcoming match; his manager, Max Corkle pleading with him to take it easy and take the train back to New York. It’s safer. But Joe has his own will and elects to fly his Cessna instead, taking his lucky saxophone along for the ride. Regrettably, Joe’s plane experiences mechanical difficulties and is downed in a clearing not far off. However, before his body can be smashed to pieces – or, at least, so it would seem – Joe is plucked from the wreckage prematurely by Messenger 7013; a fastidious, if slightly overzealous and heaven-sent collector of the freshly deceased bound for their waystation in the clouds. Joe tries to reason with the messenger but to no avail. Alas, 7013’s superior, Mr. Jordan, can find no record to authenticate Joe’s untimely passing. In reviewing the case further, it becomes quite clear Joe Pendleton ought to have survived his ordeal, given the 99 year lease on life to pursue his big dreams of becoming a world’s champion in the boxing arena.
Joe is relieved to learn this, and even more overwhelmed when Mr. Jordan offers to personally escort him back to his former life on earth. Regrettably, the pair discovers the wreck, but without Joe’s body awaiting the return of its ethereal soul. Hurrying back to Joe’s New York apartment, Joe and Mr. Jordan pass a newspaper boy selling copies with a headline suggesting Joe Pendleton died in the crash. Elation turns to mild panic after Joe and Mr. Jordan learn his remains have already been incinerated at a local crematorium. How can there be any reprieve for Joe Pendleton now? The answer is quite simple; or rather, existentially complex; by inserting his soul into another body, one of Joe’s choosing, newly deceased so as not to draw undue attention to the resurrection at hand. After some globe-trotting for alternatives, Mr. Jordan delivers Joe to the stately abode of banker, Bruce Farnsworth; the pair making themselves quite at home inside Farnsworth’s study. Still rather unable to wrap his head around what the future may bring, Joe is antsy to get on with life – his, not somebody else’s. When Farnsworth fails to materialize, Mr. Jordan explains with a rather sadistic streak of pleasure they are awaiting Bruce’s murder to take place. It seems Farnsworth’s wife, the elegant Julia (Rita Johnson) and Farnsworth’s accounting secretary, Tony Abbott (John Emery) have been lovers plotting Bruce’s demise for some time.  With gruesome resolve, the conspirators are presently upstairs holding Farnsworth’s head under water in his bathtub, having previous drugged his drink to make things easier.
Joe wants absolutely no part of this. And who can really blame him – having sacrificed his taut sportsman-like physique for a young banker’s body, arguably bloated with the privileges of wealth and decidedly out of shape. Jordan allows Joe to observe an altercation between Julia, Tony and Bette Logan. The latter has come to the mansion in the hopes of convincing Farnsworth what a heel he has been by allowing her father to take the wrap and go to jail for a Ponzi scheme Farnsworth helped to perpetuate. Julia is heartless, but reasons what better way to absolve herself of the crime of murder than by allowing the family’s butler, Sisk (Halliwell Hobbes) to now go upstairs, presumably to fetch Bruce for Bette, though ultimately to discover his body; thus solidifying her own alibi. The ruse fails, however, as Joe has already elected to do the morally right thing where Bette is concerned; stepping into Farnsworth’s body, but on one condition: once he straightens out the situation and exonerates Bette’s father, Mr. Jordan finds him a more suitable corpse to occupy so he can resume his training as a prize fighter. Mr. Jordan agrees. He has done his homework too; his records indicating Joe Pendleton ought to have been one of the great champions in the ring before 7013’s premature blundering into his fate.
In short order, Joe – as Farnsworth – gives Julia and Tony quite a fright.  Wasting no time, as there is precious little of it to needlessly squander, Joe backs his old business partner, Logan, buying back the fraudulent loans to the tune of $5 million and openly admitting Bette’s father knew nothing of their worthlessness. Unable to make the indictment stick, the feds release Logan from prison. Bette is understandably grateful and strangely attracted to Farnsworth, a man whom she wisely judged as amoral before, but since Joe has taken over, is fast becoming someone she can fall in love with, if only he were not married. Joe vows to make some changes; to begin with, getting Farnsworth into tip-top physical shape. If he cannot box for a living, maybe the relatively young and inexperienced Farnsworth can in his stead. To this end, Joe sends for Max Corkle and, in the privacy of his makeshift gymnasium, pleads with Max to recognize him as Joe Pendleton. Max is understandably skeptical until Joe seizes upon the opportunity to serenade Max with his saxophone. Although it is too fantastic to even fathom, Max comes to believe Joe has been reincarnated as Farnsworth. Alas, it will not be as simple as getting Tony to cut a check for $25,000 payable to Max to set a new date for the fight between Farnsworth and Murdock – the match Joe was looking forward to before his untimely demise.
Tony and Julia grow impatient; Joe dropping hints along the way he knows damn well the two have been conspiring to be rid of Farnsworth. Joe threatens to pull the plug on their plot and expose the pair as cold-blooded killers. In doing so he sets into motion a series of events surely to create havoc on all their lives. As Farnsworth, Joe attempts to court Bette. She is drawn to him, but not enough to pursue a relationship with a married man. 7013 materializes to forewarn Joe he must leave with him immediately. Joe, however, is not about to listen to the man responsible for all this chaos. So, Mr. Jordan returns, encouraging Joe to sacrifice Farnsworth for another prospect; an Australian fighter about to meet with an untimely demise. Having desperately fallen in love with Bette, Joe suggests he cannot leave Farnsworth – if only, because he has just sent Bette away with the rather cryptic promise to be reunited with her again as somebody else. Joe cannot comprehend that fate is once again upon him; Mr. Jordan attempting to soften the blow of Farnsworth’s pending second murder by Tony; Joe opening the door to the front parlor and fatally shot off camera; stumbling back into the den where Mr. Jordan advises him not to struggle. Farnsworth’s fate has been sealed.
Now, Jordan implants Joe’s soul into Murdock’s body; Murdock, having been framed by his manager, Lefty (Don Costello) into taking a header in the ninth round, instead refusing to say ‘uncle’ in the ring, thus necessitating a pair of Mafia thugs to put a bullet in him right in the middle of his biggest match. Before vacating the Farnsworth premises, Joe uses his acute level of spiritual concentration to direct Max into revealing the whereabouts of Farnsworth’s corpse for caustic Police Inspector Williams (Donald McBride). Tony and Julia have stuffed Farnsworth in a basement freezer. Williams does not believe Max’s story, nor Bette’s tearful admission the man she knew and confesses to having platonically adored, would have run off or vanished without a trace of his own accord. Imbued with this knowledge, Williams orders his detectives to have a once more go-over of the Farnsworth estate, eventually locating the banker’s remains exactly where Max said they would find him. Meanwhile, as Murdock, Joe recovers from his gunshot to victoriously finish the fight.
Hailed as the new heavy-weight champion, Joe tells Mr. Jordan he is not at all pleased with this new arrangement. Sure he has won the match, but not as Joe Pendleton – not as ‘himself’; although by now, given how many times his soul has changed hands, it is a small wonder Joe can even recall who he used to be. Reasoning Joe will never be contented with finding ‘the right body’ to fulfill his dreams, Mr. Jordan elects instead to erase all of Joe’s former memories with one magical wave of his hand. Joe now believes he is Murdock. Nevertheless, traces of the ole Joe remain; Murdock firing Lefty and hiring Corkle to be his new manager. Preparing to leave the arena after a shower and a quick change of clothes, Joe runs into Bette. Although he appears to have no past recollection of their previous encounters, she is stirred to recall Farnsworth’s earlier cryptic message; deciphering a window into Murdock’s soul as that of Farnsworth – or rather, Joe – the only man she has ever loved. As Murdock and Bette depart hand in glove for their first real date, presumably with a very bright future ahead of them, Mr. Jordan tips his hand to them both, adding “Good luck, champion” – his job on earth at an end…for now.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the sort of ebullient, yet haunting tour de force that could only have been made as utterly convincing in the early forties, before the real horrors of WWII intervened on the trusting, if slightly naïve American psyche. That the picture has held up spectacularly well since is a testament truer still to the machinery of that bygone Hollywood craftsmanship, every cog and piston firing at the peak of perfection. Certainly, in more recent times there have been other movies about other strangely benevolent, to downright comedic harbingers of death, 1989’s Always (Spielberg’s rather turgid remake of A Guy Named Joe), 1998’s Meet Joe Black (Martin Brest’s fairly literal remake of the rarely seen, and even less remembered Death Takes a Holiday, 1934) and 2001’s Down to Earth (no correlation to the aforementioned Rita Hayworth movie whatsoever, starring Chris Rock) immediately coming to mind. And yet, none has managed to balance and bottle this film’s unearthly elixir of pathos, wit, humor, tragedy and hopefulness half as effectively.
Part of the appeal herein lies with Claude Rains’ admirably mysterious central performance. Odd, the movie’s title character should be third billed in the credits; odder still, as it is Claude Rains who, even by 1941, had managed to establish himself as one of Hollywood’s most consummate professionals; infrequently thereafter to be given ‘star billing’ in any movie, yet steadily building a formidable roster of credits as second-string support in movies as diverse as Now Voyager (1942), Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). There was nothing in Rains’ early life, growing up tough in Camberwell, London, his thick cockney accent capped off by a horrendous speech impediment (he couldn’t say his ‘r’s), to suggest his future lay in a career in acting. And yet, through perseverance and sheer willpower, Rains became one of the screen’s most enigmatic performers; a trooper in the old school/best sense of the word, and one of the most steadily working actors in the biz. Immediately recognizable for his silky vocalization, trademarked even under the cover of bandages in his first major role as Dr. Jack Griffin, a.k.a. The Invisible Man (1933), herein Rains brings his usual modicum of urbanity to Mr. Jordan; also, a warm-hearted benevolent, and casual, if otherworldly amusement for the havoc brought upon Joe Pendleton’s soul-jumping/time traveler. Robert Montgomery’s sax-playing Brooklyn pugilist is decidedly the more flamboyant performance in the picture, even stepping out of his usual comfort zone and air of elegance inculcated and trademarked as MGM’s second string, erudite man of the world. But it is Claude Rains who arguably runs away with this show; giving us an enchanting glimpse into that safeguard of eternal life we might all wish to find awaiting us on the proverbial ‘other side’.
The rest of the cast are uniformly excellent. Evelyn Keyes, as the doe-eyed ingénue, eschews her carefully crafted pin-up image as the platinum sexpot to play virtue personified. Aside: it is difficult, if not entirely impossible to recall how effectively she played Vivien Leigh’s decidedly mousey sister, Sue Ellen in Gone With The Wind (1939). Edward Everett Horton gives another memorable performance as the long-suffering buffoon – a tradition from which he managed to fashion an entire career; his neurotic physicality (fidgety hands, marvelously roving eyes and anxious cadence) holdovers from his days as a silent actor. James Gleason is a superb foil; the every man’s every man, and, one of the actors chiefly responsible for teaching the rest of Hollywood how to talk without the stultified theatricality of a well-seasoned Broadway ham. Even Rita Johnson and John Emery – given precious little play time in the script, manage to convey a threatening air of ever-present evil; the perfect ‘noir’ couple in this otherwise slickly packaged dramedy.  In the final analysis, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is pure entertainment in the best tradition of that ancient flower in film-making, sadly, with us no longer.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is cribbing from an older 2K scan done by Sony under the auspices of Grover Crisp with a sizable endowment for its preservation provided by the Library of Congress. It is one of the genuine tragedies that the older regimes at Columbia never bothered to properly archive the studio’s heritage, leaving Mr. Crisp with the Herculean task of rescuing nearly all of its’ vintage catalog from near oblivion. This said, Here Comes Mr. Jordan looks about as good as it ever will in 1080p, alas, without ever attaining true perfection. A 4K scan might have better resolved the issues of inconsistent grain (at times exceedingly thick and at others practically nonexistent). Scene transitions suffer from an amplification of the film’s natural grain structure too. On occasion there are gate-weave issues, creating slight image instability and wobble. While age-related artifacts have been greatly tempered, they are not entirely eradicated – a shame, though a forgivable one. Dupes are also present with jarring downgrades to overall image quality.
Now, for the pluses; first, a mostly razor-sharp transfer with wonderfully realized black levels and superior contrast; Joseph Walker’s exquisite B&W cinematography given its due: also, a remastered mono PCM soundtrack with no hiss or pop. Criterion is a little light on the extras. We get a newly produced ‘discussion piece’ featuring critic, Michael Sragow and filmmaker, Michael Schlesinger, both obvious enthusiasts of this film, sharing their copious knowledge of its production and behind-the-scenes stories. There is also a 1991 audio interview featuring Robert Montgomery’s daughter; everyone’s favorite TV witch, Elizabeth ‘Bewitched’ Montgomery. Criterion’s affinity for including Lux Radio broadcasts continues; this 1942 adaptation featuring Cary Grant, Claude Rains, Evelyn Keyes and James Gleason, providing us with at least a hint of what the movie might have been if Grant had accepted the role originally offered to him in Montgomery’s stead. Finally, there is a badly worn trailer and an essay by critic, Farran Smith Nehme.  Bottom line: Here Comes Mr. Jordan is required viewing. Sony has done practically everything it could to preserve the movie for posterity and this new Blu-ray is decidedly the best incarnation yet to reach home video. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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