There are not many movies about Heaven, thank God, 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 someone, 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 frivolous 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 frivolous 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 just 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 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. 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 in Heaven, where the souls of the departed, who are walking on clouds, are boarding a plane that will take them to their final destination. One would think that no technology at all would be necessary in Heaven, but somehow the technology so envisioned in Heaven is often that presently available on Earth. We are not too surprised when we find in Revelations that Jesus is going to use a sword with which to smite whole nations, 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 naturally there are airplanes in this movie’s Heaven.
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. Of course, there are those who believe that only a handful will make it into Heaven, the rest being condemned to the fires of Hell, so perhaps that would explain why there are so few people boarding the plane. On the other hand, Joe is just an average Joe, so to speak, no better or worse than most people, so why he would qualify for Heaven in that case would not make sense.
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. However, I will try not to nitpick. I will not, for example, ask why people in Heaven wear clothes, and not just any clothes, but those that were in fashion in America circa 1941. Nor will I question why the soul in charge of things in Heaven is called “Mr. Jordan” (Claude Rains). Presumably he has been admitting souls into Heaven for centuries, long before the title “Mister” was used. So, let us leave these questions aside and move along to some of the more serious absurdities.
Perhaps the most absurd 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 and is in Heaven is understandable. But when he is finally convinced that he has gone to Heaven, 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 Heaven 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 plan 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? 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 Julia and his secretary, Tony Abbot. 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 just 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 and a Heaven, 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. In fact, even Heaven would not be all that important, for being the risk-averse guy that I am, I would gladly forgo all chance of Heaven if I could be assured that I would be spared of the fires of Hell. In any event, 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. To this end, he gets in touch with Max. At first, Max does not believe him, but the saxophone convinces him. In other words, the real function of the saxophone in this movie is to act as an attribute, which is a feature used in art to identify someone. For example, no one knows what Hercules looked like, even assuming there was such a person, so when we see a painting of a muscular man, how do we know it is Hercules? We know by his attributes, which in his case are a lion skin and a gnarled club. Since Joe keeps changing bodies, the only way Max can identify him is through Joe’s attribute, his saxophone.
Unfortunately for Joe, there is another thing he can’t seem to get through his thick 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.
The particular evil in question 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 the girl.
Just before Joe as 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 a title bout because he refused to throw that 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. He runs into Bette and they recognize each other, not physically, but spiritually as it were. The only one left with any memory of all this is Max, who tells the police where the murdered body of Farnsworth can be found, and who is the one who was referred to in the prologue as the source for this story.
And so it is that Joe and Bette can live happily ever after, or at least until they die, when they have to go to that boring old Heaven.