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.
This movie was remade as Heaven Can Wait in 1978, using the same title as that of the play by Harry Seagall on which the original movie was based. Most of the differences are trivial. Joe (Warren Beatty) is a professional football player who wasn’t supposed to die in an accident, and what this Joe cares about is getting a body that will allow him to play in the Super Bowl. As we might expect, the plane has been updated to that of a Concorde. Messenger 7013 has become The Escort (Buck Henry), who must hate his job, because he is a sourpuss. Betty Logan (Julie Christie), whose name has undergone a different spelling, is not worried about her father, but about the environment. And so it goes.
Even though the Production Code ended ten years before this version was made, those that produced this movie must have still had some misgivings about taking a stand one way or the other on the matter of predestination. On the one hand, as with the original version, predestination is clearly implied. When Mr. Jordan (James Mason) inquires as to when Joe was supposed to arrive in this afterworld, he is told that he was supposed to arrive at 10:17 AM, March 20th, 2025. There are two things worth noting about this: First, it is precise, down to the minute. Second, it is what is supposed to happen. Now, that sounds like predestination, sure enough.
Unlike in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, where the word “God” is never uttered, in Heaven Can Wait, there are several occasions in which someone uses this word, usually as part of an exclamation, but in any event, only by people on Earth. Neither Mr. Jordan nor The Escort ever says the word “God.” When The Escort informs Joe that he will not be able to use Farnsworth’s body to play in the Super Bowl after all, he avails himself of the passive voice, saying, “It wasn’t meant to be.” And Mr. Jordan does likewise. He says to Joe, “You must abide by what is written…. There’s a reason for everything. There’s always a plan.” What he most decidedly does not say is, “You must abide by God’s plan, because he has a reason for everything. That’s why he wrote it down.”
With or without explicit references to God, all this is in keeping with the doctrine of predestination. But early in the movie, when Mr. Jordan asks The Escort what happened, The Escort confesses that he removed Joe’s soul just before the crash because he was afraid it would hurt. Mr. Jordan reprimands him, saying, “Every question of life and death is a probability until the outcome.” Well, that’s true for us mortals, who must consider what is likely or unlikely on a daily basis, but it makes Mr. Jordan sound like an actuary who works for a life insurance company. In any event, this notion of the probability of an outcome does not square with the precise time and date given above. Nor does it square with the notion that this was when Joe was supposed to die, with what was written, with the plan. My guess is that those who made this movie were as uncomfortable with taking a firm stand on predestination as Joseph Breen was, and they were trying to weasel their way out of it with a contradiction. When it comes to religion, that often seems to work.
The movie was remade again as Down to Earth in 2001, using the same title as the 1947 sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan. Regarding the sequel, I was lucky. It is not available on Netflix, so I have been spared the fate of having to watch it. As for the remake that goes by this title, in this version, Chris Rock stars as the Joe character, but going by the name “Lance Barton.” Lance is a professional comedian, and his problem is that he is not funny, and he always gets booed off the stage. However, his best chance for success will be if, just before the Apollo Theater closes for good, he can win a slot in the Amateur Night Contest = become Heavy Weight Champion = win the Super Bowl.
Lance’s day job, so to speak, is that of a bicycle messenger, and when he sees Sontee Jenkins (Regina King) = Bette/Betty Logan walking across the street, he gets distracted and is hit by a truck and killed. In this case, Keyes (Eugene Levy) = Messenger 7013 = The Escort, makes the mistake of plucking Lance’s soul from his body ahead of time, even though he is required to use a stopwatch to make sure souls are taken at the exact moment they are supposed to be. When we first see Keyes, he says he hates his job, which was something we always suspected about his avatars in the first two versions. It would have been blasphemous for Messenger 7013 to have said such a thing in 1941, and even in 1978, it would not have been acceptable for The Escort to say as much, though he is so miserable that we can hardly think anything else; but religion in the twenty-first century is no longer sacred, and the audience can hear Keyes make such a remark without thinking God would be offended.
There is no plane in this movie to take Lance to his final destination. Instead, Heaven is like the hottest nightclub in town, and he finds himself standing in line with other people waiting to get past the velvet rope. A good looking girl says that Mike put her on the list, and she gets to go right in. But when some dork tries to gain entry, he is told to go to Hell. Lance is admitted, and what he finds inside is an adolescent’s idea of Heaven, one never-ending party. Mr. King (Chazz Palminteri) = Mr. Jordan runs the joint, and as he explains to Lance, “The food is great, the women are beautiful, and the music, Lance, the music is hot. The fun never stops.”
I should have said this is Heaven as envisioned by a male adolescent, and a straight one at that, for this is certainly no gay bar. Presumably, women exist in this Heaven to provide pleasure for the men, sort of like the seventy-two virgins for male martyrs in the Paradise of Islam. That’s why this nightclub Heaven is always pleased to welcome women who die young, while they are still desirable. I am trying to imagine a gender reversal, where a Josephine dies before her time, and is told by a Ms. Queen that the men in the night club are rich and powerful, and the marriage proposals never stop. But I may be way off base. I have known young males to indulge in such fantasies as presented in this movie, but no woman of any age has ever told me of her fantasies of Heaven.
In any event, regarding this nightclub Heaven as presented in this movie, most straight men would enjoy that sort of thing once in a while, but the prospect of being trapped in that nightclub doing the same thing over and over again for eternity is dreadful. The only way it could possibly be enjoyable is if it involves some kind of eternal recurrence: there you are in a fancy nightclub, feeling good from a couple of drinks, and dancing with a beautiful woman, who gives every indication she’ll be going home with you at the end of the evening; and then, after about fifteen minutes, your memory is washed away, and you start at the beginning again, on the dance floor with that same woman, oblivious to the fact that you have done this countless times in the past, and will do so countless times in the future. Ugh!
Mr. King comes across as a wise guy, an Italian with mob connections. When he realizes that Lance was taken before his time, which is precise to the minute, he says he talked to his boss and can fix things. Lance asks, “You talked to God,” and Mr. King says, “Yeah.” So, this is the first version in which someone in the afterworld acknowledges that there is a God, let alone indicates that God has agency, that he has chosen to allow Lance to be granted a new body rather than just have him stay in that nightclub.
One of the refreshing things about this version is that Lance quickly catches on to the mechanics of occupying the body of Mr. Wellington (Brian Rhodes) = Mr. Farnsworth. In the previous versions, it was exasperating the way it took Joe so long to understand the rules. One of the rules is that Lance continues to look like Lance to himself after he enters Mr. Wellington’s body, but not to others. Occasionally we see him through the eyes of others, in which case he looks like Mr. Wellington, an older white man, who is mostly bald with just a little gray hair left. So, when Lance is at the Apollo coming on like Chris Rock, telling black jokes to a black audience, as far as the audience is concerned, some white guy is making fun of them. And when others see him with Sontee, that’s amusing too. They are not only a mixed-race couple, as well as a May-December couple, but they also seem to be unsuited to each other as to their looks, for he is somewhat unattractive, while she is pretty. But then, he’s a billionaire, and such men can usually have their pick. In any event, when Lance moves into the final body of Joe Guy (Arnold Pinnock), another black comedian, he and Sontee make a more suitable couple.
Even though Mr. King admitted that he talked to God to get his approval for obtaining a new body for Lance, he resorts to the same old artifice when it comes time for Lance to give up Mr. Wellington’s body. When Lance objects because he has just asked Sontee to marry him, and she said yes, Mr. King says, “You’ve got to play by the rules.” When Lance keeps resisting, Mr. King says, “No one makes these rules, kid…. It’s fate.” Unlike genuine predestination, in which God ordained everything that happens from the beginning of time, fate is an impersonal kind of necessity, which characterizes the rules, according to Mr. King. Since God didn’t make the rules, he cannot be blamed for the rule that says that Wellington must be murdered. So, whereas God is allowed to be an active participant in what happens when it is something good, like that of getting Lance a new body, he is nowhere to be found when something evil takes place, such as the murder of Mr. Wellington.
And so, as with the first two versions of this story, predestination seems to prevail in this movie, though cast in an impersonal form. But I wonder if anyone cares anymore, the way Joseph Breen once feared they might. In a review on christiananswers.net, the author noted the profanity, sex, and references to drugs in the movie, but said nothing about the issue of free will versus predestination. Nor did any of the posted comments express concerns on this matter. I searched for other Christian websites that might have a review, but I found none.
In any event, the most remarkable thing about this movie is that, unlike the reaction I had when watching its predecessors, I think this version is occasionally funny. But, boy, am I in the minority! I have already referred to the Academy Awards for Best Story and Best Screenplay for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Elaine May got the nomination for Best Screenplay for Heaven Can Wait, but for the most part, the critics did not seem to care for Down to Earth. Roger Ebert gave it one star, saying that it is “an astonishingly bad movie.” I never laughed once while watching Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and I found Heaven Can Wait to be irritating. But when I watched Down to Earth, at least it did make me laugh once in a while. It’s not so good that I expect to ever watch it again, but as a one-timer, it’s not bad.
For the sake of completeness, I suppose I should at least note that there are four other remakes of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. First, there is Ice Angel (2000). This is the movie that Roger Ebert might well have deemed an astonishingly bad movie. It is unworthy of discussion. I understand that there are a couple of versions made in India: The Skies Have Bowed (1968) and Mar Gaye Oye Loke (2018). From what little I know of the religions India, I don’t think that predestination would be as contentious an issue in that part of the world as it is for Christianity. But my biggest regret is that I have been unable to see Debbie Does Dallas… Again (2007). I looked for it on Netflix, but no luck there. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.