Pinpointing where a trope starts is a core concept in film history; tracing the origins of story tells a story itself. For example, think about the first time movie showed a natural disaster on screen. Can you remember which movie showed a tornado? Flood? Huge earthquake? It’s a challenge because this process is multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and aspiring filmmakers dabbled extremely wide and deep in the first few decades of making movies. They grasped onto new technology and technique, they experimented in color and sound design and sought to move the medium forward, whether consciously or not. The very fact of making a movie in the 1930s and 1940s changed the game for every other filmmaker.
(Here’s a quick side note: because of how slowly information moved pre-Internet, multiple studios and directors created new all at once, often separately, often across the world. But here’s a fun thought experiment: two studios could have worked on the same idea across Tinseltown, and both could have made huge strides simultaneously. The industry-wide gains may have been realized, and later interacted with each other months or years later. The collective derivation swelled the world with so many new ideas for a long time.)
Deep in the morass of the early 1940s there’s hundreds of films buried, but for the Academy Awards. The landmark year 1939 (The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) bookends 1944, when the Academy shed its all-for-one mentality. For the next 64 years, only five of the best films would earn a Best Picture nomination. Where 1939 introduced Technicolor, 1940 didn’t introduce a thing. There’s absolutely talented, famous works here: The Great Dictator, The Philadelphia Story, winner, Rebecca, but this time in history is muddy, and Here Comes Mr. Jordan often gets, well, lost.
Like we’ve talked about, Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the spiritual successor to the guardian angel trope (even Heaven Can Wait, two years later. It’s modern flagpole is popularized by Christmas favorite, It’s a Wonderful Life (which definitely contributes to it’s lasting popularity.) What if you’d never been born? What if you die too early? Would everyone be better off? The trope is old news now; it’s fossilized. The answer is always “everyone’s worse off, because your individual life touches so many others.” It’s not an interesting premise, so why do studios keep making these movies? Likely, because it’s tried and true, and it’s a Universal Human Theme, of which there are only so many. Perhaps in the 2020s we’ll see more of this, but for members of marginalized groups–LGBTQ+, perhaps, or women and men of color.
In this probably-original iteration: boxer Joe dies before his time, as noted by twinkly-eyed head Guardian Angel, Mr. Jordan. He then pops into and out of a bunch of recently-deceased bodies until he finally lands on one mostly adjacent to his original one. As it were, the plot of this movie is mostly narrow and doesn’t require a lot of character study. Boxer Joe mostly changes as a function of his circumstance, and even still the circumstance is, uh, circumstantial and mostly fleeting. This movie’s capriciousness makes it fun and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. It’s well-written, and is mostly remembered as the film remade into Warren Beatty’s Heaven Can Wait, which is nothing at all like Heaven Can Wait, with Don Ameche, also lost in the early ’40s dogpile. Because that’s the point here: there’s very likely a spiritual predecessor to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and it’s very likely “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, whose spiritual successor is likely the Bible itself. The pursuit of a Universal Human Theme is a part of the human condition, too. And so it goes.
For its strengths as a quick piece of entertainment, there was never a chance this movie wins Best Picture in 1941. It feels entirely too copacetic for the Academy, whose members had just witnessed entree into World War II. It also had to contend with Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, pumped-up noirs, which for the nth time delved into evil as a penchant for desire. These translated well onto the screen, unironically as black-and-white. Yet, both of these films lost to How Green Was My Valley a film of literal labor and tragedy we last saw in 1940, and before that in 1939, and before that in 1938.