Sunday, December 13, 2015

Alexander Hall | Here Comes Mr. Jordan

the corpse hunters
by Douglas Messerli

Sidney Buchman  and Seton I. Miller (screenplay, based on the stage play by Harry Segall), Alexander Hall (director)  Here Comes Mr. Jordan / 1941

Alexander Hall’s 1941 film, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, begins with one of the oddest plot connivances of all time: the film’s hero, boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) dies in the crash of a small plane he is flying. Told he is dead by angelic Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton), Joe refuses to believe him, particularly since he still has his lucky saxophone in hand, demanding that he been taken to the man in charge, which happens to be Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), an oddly dressed manager of what the removal of souls to heaven via what appears to be a normal 1940s air-liner.

When Joe refuses to board, Jordan checks things out, only to discover that the Messenger has intruded, removing Joe’s soul before his actual death, discovering that in the book of fate Joe is evidently scheduled to live 50 years further into time. What to do?
      Return to the body, of course, and put Joe back into it. Not so quick!  When the small hunting party returns to the site of the crash they find that the body has already been removed and, soon after, we discover, cremated by Joe’s boxing manager, “Pop” Corkle (James Gleason). How Corkle has already discovered the news of Joe’s accident and whisked his body away so quickly is never explained. But that somewhat absurd plot wrinkle requires that Joe, the Messenger, and Jordan immediately go on the search for a new body that might fit Joe’s soul.

      Having worked hard to bring his body into such good shape, however, Joe is terribly picky, refusing 100s of the corpses they’ve already offered up before the trio shows up on the doorstep of the wealthy, crooked banker and investor, Bruce Farnsworth, about to be drowned in his bathtub by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson) and Farnworth’s secretary Tony Abbott (John Emery).

     So these supposedly heavenly messengers slip Joe into his body, startling the two would-be murderers and saving the day for Bette Logan (Evelyn Keyes) who, soon after, shows up to demand that Farnsworth return the money he has swindled from her innocent father. 
      By this time the plot is so luridly whacky that the fantastical tale has surely caught our attention if nothing else. In Hall’s version, even if the murderers are astonished they remain, nonetheless, in the story’s background, as Joe, now Farnsworth, quickly moves forward behind the scenes, righting all the evils Farnsworth has committed and attending to his new physique, which requires he bring back his trainer and prove to him who he “really” is by blowing a few sour notes upon his sax.

      In Warren Beatty’s 1978 remake—one of the many Hollywood makeovers through the years—the giddy acting of the guilty couple, deliciously played by Dyan Cannon and Charles Grodin, helps to detract from the ridiculous story of corpse-hunting, shifting our attention, at least for a while, to their over-the-top hysteria. In Hall’s version we hardly get a chance to blink before Joe is told he’s going to have to change bodies yet again since the wife and secretary are about to make another go-round in Farnworth’s murder, which, after all, Jordan reminds us, was destined in the first place!

     Joe just has time to look into Bette Logan’s and eyes and warn her that should remember his deep gaze just in case she might later run into a boxer who doesn’t look like he does now.

     Off he flies to be refitted into another new corpse, that of his boxer friend, Murdoch, who has just been shot in the middle of a match by crooked gamblers who had demanded he throw the fight. Evidently, Murdoch’s death, quite inexplicable, was not destined, for Joe, now in Murdoch’s body, slowing rises and wins the match, firing Murdoch’s equally crooked trainer, and taking on, once more, McCorkle, who having spotted Joe’s golden saxophone at ringside, has already hurried off to the site of match.
      This time, Joe’s memory is wiped clean by the inconsistent Mr. Jordan, and, accordingly, doesn’t recognize Bette Logan, who also mysteriously shows up in the dark halls of boxing locker rooms. But it doesn’t matter, since both Joe, now Murdoch, and Bette seem to recognize something in each other’s eyes, as if—so they toss out their banal metaphors—they had met before, deciding to discuss it over dinner. At least Joe has a boxer’s body which he can now inhabit for the next 49 years or so! And will probably have dozens of kids with Bette. Jordan send him away with the salutatory “Goodbye, Champ!”
     In short, the 1938 Harry Segall play, as rewritten by Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller makes about as much sense as a Feydeau farce and, in its spiritually-approved shifting of corpses, even borders on the macabre. Montgomery suffers the trials and tribulations of reincarnation with bland impatience, while the producer’s original choice for the lead actor, Cary Grant, might have played it with a far better with series of flummoxed comic gestures; certainly we might find the shifting of bodies, given Grant’s graceful exterior, a far greater curse. 
      But in the end, none of this truly matters since everything has been put into Rains’, Horton’s, and Gleason’s affable and capable hands. Given Rains’ suave elocutions and friendly, is slightly ironic smiles, Horton’s blundering comic confusions, and Gleason’s grumpy loyalty to his friend, we know that no matter where this corpse-robbing voyage make take us, we’ll have some fun along the way before being brought safely home again. 
      Yet given the abuse of all those dead bodies along the way, we might all what think about joining the Neptune Society (which assures its members of prepaid cremations) to be sure our bodies are not used, as Mr. Jordan describes them, simply as “outer cloaks”—unless you’re convinced that you may have to return to your own skin again.

Los Angeles, December 13, 2015

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