The Eternal Adaptability of Heaven Can Wait

Who among us hasn’t wanted to be prematurely sent to the afterlife, returned to Earth in the body of a millionaire, perform good deeds with the vast resources at hand, find true love, achieve long-held dreams, then get reincarnated in a better body?

While the interruption of plans in one’s original human form isn’t ideal, the wish fulfillment that arises from this fantastical predicament and the eventual happy ending more than compensate for the inconvenience — and have proven appealing enough fodder for Hollywood to revisit and update every few decades.

Working from Harry Segall’s 1938 stage play Heaven Can Wait, directors Alexander Hall and the teams of Warren Beatty & Buck Henry and Chris & Paul Weitz have respectively brought this story to the screen as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Down to Earth (2001), with Robert Montgomery, Beatty, and Chris Rock as the projects’ charismatic leads. Beatty’s film, which makes its Blu-ray debut on Nov. 30, remains the most well-made, entertaining, and emotionally rich telling, though the bookend editions carry plenty of distinct appeals and make Segall’s archetypal tale their own.

Faithful to the source play, Sidney Buchman’s and Seton I. Miller’s script for Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a fine first stab at the material, and capably establishes a blueprint from which Beatty and co-screenwriter Elaine May would work 37 years later. Not only do the characters, plot points, and much of the dialogue remain the same in Beatty’s film, but Segall’s contemplations of mortality, ethics, love, friendship, and social justice are likewise intact.

In the words of 19th century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr — or Jon Bon Jovi, take your pick — the more things change, the more they stay the same, and in the different eras that each adaptation depicts, the systems and the conflicts they produce have barely budged (and are arguably more pronounced each time). The rich still take advantage of the poor while squabbling amongst each other, but decent people also keep rising to confront these transgressions — and many continue to seek escapism through sports and entertainment.

Though Segall’s play is nowhere near as respected as great works of classic literature that remain relevant year after year, its messages and presentation are nevertheless potent enough to inspire new tellings every few generations. So strong is the narrative and thematic foundation that the bulk of the screenwriters’ work involves plugging in up-to-date details to reflect the new timeframe — and sending the rights holder(s) a check as (legal) thanks for the head start.

The play and Here Comes Mr. Jordan feature Joe Pendleton as an up-and-coming boxer with banker/investor Mr. Farnsworth (whose body Joe will temporarily inhabit) as a swindler on a domestic scale. But by the late 1970s, the NFL had eclipsed boxing in popularity, prompting Beatty and May to cast their Joe as the second-string quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. And on the business side, industrial greed had gone global, resulting in such misdeeds as Heaven Can Wait’s Farnsworth planning to uproot an entire English village in the name of corporate expansion.

By the dawn of the 21st century, professional sports remained a huge draw with the NBA as the hot ticket alongside the NFL. Had the Weitzes or someone else decided to stick with the athletic route for Down to Earth, it’s not hard to imagine Denzel Washington or Will Smith as a back-up point guard for the New York Knicks, working his way into the starting lineup just in time for the playoffs.

But thanks to the steady rise of stand-up comedy in the ’80s and ’90s, and comedians — Rock included — transitioning into cast positions on sketch comedy programs like Saturday Night Live and starring roles in major motion pictures, all while still touring and recording the occasional HBO or Comedy Central special, superstar comics were nearly as bankable as top athletes. 

In turn, scrappy sportsman Joe Pendleton became aspiring standup Lance Barton, who makes ends meet as a New York City bike messenger. And with health care costs rapidly rising and nearly a decade until Obamacare would make its way through Congress, it’s only natural that the film’s heartless tycoon — renamed Wellington — would be making a profit from people in need of medical help, including at Brooklyn Community Hospital.

Though the Joes can almost taste success in their upcoming big fight and important game, it’s clear that they’ve earned their opportunities the right way through a lifetime of hard work, and therefore warrant audience support. The same goes for Lance, who’s naturally funny offstage and yearns to perform at The Apollo’s final show, but bombs so frequently in front of crowds that he’s earned the nickname “Boo-ey.”

When accidents claim their lives, it’s a major injustice that they were robbed of the chance to prove themselves. Still, we’re rooting for these guys who further endear themselves to viewers by the relatable way they attempt to make sense of their supernatural predicament.

Bewildered but undeterred, the men insist there’s been a mistake and are proven right once it’s revealed that a comic-relief rookie agent (Edward Everett Horton, Buck Henry, and Eugene Levy) of the afterlife whisked them away from what seemed like certain death when there was actually a good 50 years of predetermined existence remaining.

The sympathy-stoking grievances continue with the revelation that our hero’s body has been cremated, negating the possibility of a reunion with their intended vessel. With Plan A nixed, one of the ultimate “I’d like to speak to the manager” scenarios plays out with debonaire top men Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains and James Mason) and King (Chazz Palminteri) personally seeing that our guys are taken care of. If only us average Earthlings could receive such top-notch service on a regular basis… 

Though the customer understandably prefers a blend of athleticism and/or youth in order to quickly get a second shot at that once-in-a-lifetime break, the supervisor slyly offers the body of a wealthy man whose adulterous wife (Rita Johnson, Dyan Cannon, Jennifer Coolidge) and secretary (John Emery, Charles Grodin, Greg Germann) assume they’ve just murdered him. 

It’s an unappealing proposition and our champion is anxious to see the next candidate, until a beautiful woman (Evelyn Keyes, Julie Christie, Regina King) marches in and dares to stand up to the tycoon’s greedy, illegal business practices and demand accountability on behalf of the people he’s knowingly hurt. With the angel’s assurance that our man can make a positive difference and a promise that it’s merely a temporary loan while better long term lodgings are arranged, love — or at least infatuation — and making the most of extreme wealth win out and the less than desirable casing is accepted.

In addition to the charms of a good body-swap comedy, these temporary arrangements are packed with such evergreen crowd-pleasing details as irredeemable villains and lampooning the ridiculousness of the rich — commentary that’s especially sharp with Down to Earth factoring in race through Lance’s frequent horror at white people’s behavior. Suddenly blessed with formidable financial resources and fearless of any consequences with their corporal rental situation, our salt-of-the-earth protagonists turn whistleblowers on their unsavory adopted hosts, rooting out corruption and giving the downtrodden surprise victories. It’s a 99%-er’s dream come true and one that’s played out in hilarious fashion.

The affable love of one’s fellow man further shines when our guys summon their most trusted allies (James Gleason, Jack Warden, Frankie Faison) to their new digs to convince them of the bizarre truth and help get our heroes’ progress back on track before it’s too late. The extreme skepticism that the friends display at wealthy, famous men they’ve never met claiming to be their reincarnated best buds is certainly understandable, as is the shocked revelation (thanks to information only their seemingly deceased pals would know) that what the would-be imposters say is legit. The reunions rank among the films’ warmest and funniest sequences and give way to gleeful training montages of various sorts that instill hopefulness that these underdogs will defy the odds and see their visions through.

Things are going so well that each fella proposes marriage to his sweetheart, whom they’ve known for approximately two weeks — all while being legally married, albeit to attempted murderers — and the women appear game. This remarkable accomplishment for guys who’ve not exactly been depicted as ladies’ men is perhaps pure male fantasy, but, hey, these lovebirds are great together and deserve to at least see if this crazy idea will pan out.

Then, with romantic stability (of the endangered “personality is more important than looks” species, no less) and professional glory in their sights, our dudes are dealt yet another injustice when those pesky angels return to shutter the gentlemen to their promised true final bodies, though not before the resistant soul experiences the agony of an assassin’s bullet.

The tragedies are tough to weather, but from there, each film shifts into high happy-ending gear and all injuries are forgiven. The bad guys get their comeuppance, and the good guys seize their big moments and deliver clutch performances. And in the films’ sweetest moments, the amnesia-stricken conquerors in their shiny new human suits cross paths with their sorta-fianceés, lock eyes, and begin to rekindle a relationship that exists in dramatic irony form until the men utter phrases that suggest to the women who these oddly familiar guys might truly be beneath the (nevertheless pleasing) fleshy veneer. 

Longtime offscreen couple Beatty and Christie, who’d previously co-starred in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo, are almost unfairly deft at conveying this quasi-love at first sight, which of course is no initial encounter. This triumph is also the final repeated beat in all three films, the end of a core story with so many approachable traits that, like A Star Is Born, it seems destined to receive new treatments in perpetuity.

Seeing as 20 years have elapsed since the release of Down to Earth, it wouldn’t be surprising if another version arises in a decade or so. But whenever the next iteration arises, viewers can be nearly certain that the same timeless plot, themes, and characters will be present. They’ve proven successful onscreen three times thus far and appear built to last.

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