Clara, of Via Margutta 51 fame, recently reviewed Ernst Lubitsch’s 1943 fantasy-romance Heaven Can Wait, and her post on the film prompted me to re-watch that movie for the first time in years. It’s a delightful movie, awash with the magic of the famed “Lubitsch touch” and marked by a fabulous cast, with particularly fine performances from Don Ameche and Charles Coburn. And Heaven Can Wait remains one of the more enjoyable additions to the trend of so-called “supernatural” romance hybrids (I Married an Angel, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Bishop’s Wife among them) that abounded in the 1940s. But because of its title, it is often confused with Warren Beatty’s 1978 movie of the same name. Ultimately, the latter film has nothing in common with Lubitsch’s work other than the title, and is instead based on source material from Academy Award-winning writer Harry Segall’s play entitled … wait for it … Heaven Can Wait.
Confused yet? Well, the Beatty film was not the first (nor the last) adaptation of Segall’s premise. The play was initially filmed in 1941 under the title Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and it became a smash hit, eventually garnering seven Oscar nominations and winning two, for Best Story (Segall) and Best Screenplay (Seton I. Miller and Sidney Buchman). And having watched it again this weekend, I can tell you that the ensuing years have not stripped this movie of its considerable charms.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan stars Robert Montgomery as Joe Pendleton, a boxer and (very) amateur saxophone player who is preparing for the most important fight of his career when the plane he is piloting malfunctions and hurtles toward the earth. An inexperienced angel (Edward Everett Horton) plucks Joe’s soul from his body before the plane crashes, taking him to heaven, which is managed under the auspices of the proper Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains). Upon finding out that Joe is actually guaranteed fifty more years of life, and realizing that Joe’s body has, in the meantime, already been cremated, Mr. Jordan promises to find Joe the perfect body in which to live out his remaining time on Earth. That “perfect” body happens to belong to a corrupt, wealthy businessman named Farnsworth, whose body just happens to be available because his wife and her lover have just drowned him in the bathtub. Though initially reluctant to step into such a dicey situation, Joe agrees to “take on” Farnsworth’s body temporarily so that he can help the daughter of one of Farnsworth’s victims, the lovely Betty Logan (Evelyn Keyes). Revealing his true identity only to his trusted and bewildered boxing manager, Max Corkle (James Gleason), Joe resolves to reclaim his chance at the championship by getting into shape and entering the ring as Farnsworth. But he doesn’t seem to realize just how “temporary” his new body really is …
To be sure, it’s a highly entertaining movie with a fascinating story. But the ultimate strength of this film—and the thing that makes it far superior to its successors—comes from some spot-on casting, particularly a leading man who’d never been better. Mr. Jordan is, in my opinion, the best role in Montgomery’s extensive repertoire, and he’s positively wonderful in the part. This movie came toward the tail-end of Montgomery’s acting career, and earned him his second (and final) Oscar nomination for Best Actor (after a nod for 1937’s Night Must Fall). He would go on to star in less than a dozen more films, some of which he also directed—most notably 1947’s Lady in the Lake (in which he played iconic detective Phillip Marlowe). He moved into television with a well-received anthology series, Robert Montgomery Presents, in the 1950s, a show that featured early performances from notable actors such as James Dean, Lee Remick, Joanne Woodward, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, and Montgomery’s own daughter, Elizabeth (of Bewitched fame). A staunch Republican, Montgomery also took a behind-the-scenes role as a media consultant for the Eisenhower administration, a position that became more and more important as television developed into an indispensable part of the American lifestyle.
Two years prior to the filming of this movie, Keyes had appeared as the character for whom she would be best remembered: Suellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939). Mr. Jordan would provide Keyes with one of the few leading roles in her career. In all honesty, though I found her performance to be solid in this film, it’s easy to see why she filled mostly supporting roles throughout her career. She doesn’t have the “spark” of a Stanwyck or a Davis or a Hepburn, but she’s inoffensive and efficient in the role of Betty. Thankfully the strength of the supporting cast tends to make Keyes’ general lack of luster (for want of a better term) much less noticeable.
My love affair with Rains continues with this film. He is the perfect Mr. Jordan—unruffled, wise, a little smooth, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye. Rains out-and-out steals practically every scene he’s in, as he is apt to do in many a picture (Captain Renault, anyone?). And Horton, as the affronted and brand-new Messenger 7013, is not far behind in the scene-stealing race as he turns in a typically ticklish performance. The snappish repartee between Horton and Montgomery (“I’M the one who says, ‘Let’s go!'”) is a highlight of the film.
Gleason collected an Oscar nomination for his role as Corkle, and frankly, it was justly deserved. The scenes in which he wanders around in eye-popping vain looking for the elusive Mr. Jordan are hilarious. I just love Gleason’s distinctive voice—you’d never mistake him for Cary Grant, that’s for sure, but in its own unique way, it’s appealing all the same. He’s been a favorite supporting player of mine ever since I first saw him as Lieutenant Rooney, the incredulous policeman in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
I have to give special mention to Rita Johnson, so deliciously duplicitous as Ray Milland’s bitchy fiancée in one of my favorite films, The Major and the Minor (1942). Here, she plays nicely to type as Farnsworth’s murderous wife. And next time you watch the film, keep an eye out for a young Lloyd Bridges in a bit part as the pilot of the heavenly aircraft who checks out Joe’s “record.”
The two remakes of the Here Comes Mr. Jordan model are, in turn, a well-received hit and a definitive miss. Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait represents the former: though it changes the premise slightly, updating it for a 1970s audience, the spirit of the original story remains wholly intact. In this version, Pendleton is now a quarterback, not a boxer; Miss Logan is now an environmentalist, not the victimized daughter of a wronged financier; Pendleton “dies” not in a plane crash, but in a car accident. The minor changes don’t detract from the original story altogether much, and, aided by a capable cast that includes the always-suave James Mason as Mr. Jordan, Heaven proves to be an entertaining film in its own right (and I admit this grudgingly, as a serious non-Beatty fan). The most recent adaptation of the story, however—2001’s Down to Earth—is solidly in the “miss” category. In fact, it’s nothing short of abysmal. This is less a remake than a general bastardization of the premise: Chris Rock stars as a stand-up comedian who is brought back in the body of a rich white industrialist. Sounds about the same on first glance, but other than the basic plot structure, almost everything about the concept is changed, and in the place of the original’s “fish out of water” charm, a myriad of racial inequality jokes are inserted into the screenplay that are painfully unfunny.
In the end, for my money, there’s no beating the original. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest adding it to your “must watch” list pronto. And if you have seen it—and its remakes—tell me: which version of the story is YOUR favorite?