A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it. First, it is a combat film made during World War II. It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude. Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch. The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience. But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is the dumbest one I have ever seen.
The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy). Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is. Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank her.
Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly. Pete is appalled at their suggestions. He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates. One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when he will no longer be able to drop bombs on the enemy.
Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.” In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does. She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees. But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in. His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up. But then he crashes and dies.
The next see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds. He is still wearing his uniform. Is that the way it works in Heaven? Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died? There must be a lot of people in Heaven wearing their pajamas. Come to think of it, there must be a lot naked people in Heaven too. Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be an army air force base. Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven. Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here. There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”
Work? In Heaven? Oh no! And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die. Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years. Of course, Pete loves being in the military, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we were doing on Earth. He loves being a bomber pilot during wartime, so he gets to continue in that line now that he is in Heaven. Almost. The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will be assigned to helping out new pilots, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about. Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to back to Earth to help out those pilots. On wonders if dead Japanese pilots go back to Earth to help out their comrades. We don’t know, because we never find out whether there is a Japanese air force base in Heaven too.
Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, at least not in the form of Jehovah, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936). In fact, the other Heaven movies never even refer to God. There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done. The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy. Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect Pete to ask God why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled man since the story of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.
Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them. So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone? They do it by planting thoughts in their heads. Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head. Pete doesn’t like Ted, in part because he had inherited four million dollars. “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.
He likes him even less when Ted starts wooing Dorinda and she agrees to marry him. Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda. It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General. Finally, Joe sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed. Yeah, that’s right. The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.