*. Our visions of heaven and an afterlife fill a need. In the aftermath of the First World War seances and spirit-rapping became a popular way of communicating with the next world. In the next global conflagration there was a similar need to believe in an afterlife, however cloudy and generic. The play, Heaven Can Wait, had come out in 1938, but had never been produced. It had suggested the coming conflict though, and the movies latched on to the idea of an afterlife in a big way a few years later when so many young people were dying.
*. During wartime there was a need for this movie’s comforting message of a strictly non-demoninational, indeed non-religious, afterlife promising that “in the final reckoning everything will be accounted for” and “eventually all things work out, there’s design in everything.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? (Oddly enough, the Breen Office objected to any suggestion of predestination in the script, which led to some tweaking.)
*. That’s not the world we live in any more, but the sentimental whimsy of Here Comes Mr. Jordan has never gone out of style. There have been various remakes and spin-offs, including most famously the 1978 Warren Beatty vehicle Heaven Can Wait (which, as noted above, was the original title of the play, and not to be confused with the 1943 film Heaven Can Wait, which was something completely different).
*. Then again, it’s hard to date a film so non-specific in its setting. There’s no mention of a war going on, and the wings the angels wear look more like airline logos than military decorations. Meanwhile, heaven itself is, as already noted, a not very religious place. Everyone’s welcome! Nobody’s going to judge you.
*. Even the presentation is generic. Farran Smith Nehme in the Criterion essay calls Alexander Hall’s direction “unobtrusive to the point of invisibility.” There’s just nothing here to upset, or offend, or get in the way of a good time.
*. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that it’s a story where actions seem to have no consequences. Yes, Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) actually survives that opening plane crash! Did he bail out? Does Joe not know anything about business? That doesn’t matter, making money is all about having a good heart. Honest! And if Farnsworth Enterprises goes bust, who really cares? Meanwhile, Farnsworth’s wife and secretary are scheming adulterous murderers, but they almost get away with it (and I’ll bet at least one of them will beat the rap). And finally when Joe/Murdoch is shot in the ring during his championship fight no one notices! Apparently he is shot right in the chest too! But I guess there are no lingering health effects for Murdoch.
*. So even leaving aside the whacky body-hopping premise this would still be a very silly movie. And yet it’s so resolutely optimistic and inoffensive, and put forth so smoothly (thanks mainly to the deep cast of character actors), that it defies you not to be charmed. Who would want to resist? The secret of such a film is that it’s selling what we want to buy. The war was just another thing that didn’t really matter, and it’s Christmas in heaven.