Once upon a time—a perfectly logical way to start a discussion of a fantasy, I think—so here goes . . . Once upon a time there was a handsome young man whose face smiled down from movie screens all over the world. He was, according to critics of the day, charming and debonair with a flair for comedy, and spent much of his screen time romancing such formidable and glamorous ladies as Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Carole Lombard.
This man was my Dad . . . Robert Montgomery.
Born in Beacon, New York on May 21, 1908 to a well-to-do family, he was named Henry by his parents and changed it later to Robert because—well, I can only guess because he liked it better. When he was 16, his father died, leaving the family (mother and brother Donald) almost penniless and my dad’s days of privilege and private schools came to an abrupt end. To help keep heads above water he went to work as a railroad mechanic and also a round-the-world oil tanker deckhand.
In the middle 1920s, he decided to become a writer and moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Things didn’t work out quite as planned. A few years later he made his Broadway debut—not as a writer—as an actor! He met and married Elizabeth Allen while doing summer stock on the East Coast. Somewhere around 1929 they moved to Hollywood where he would begin his movie career at MGM. At first he specialized in sympathetic leading man roles in melodramas, but he also displayed a flair for comedy and began to appear in drawing room comedies and screwball parts. By the mid-thirties, however, tired of playing mostly debonair playboys, my father began to long for a change.
In 1937, he approached the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, with the idea of playing entirely against type by portraying a psychopath to end all psychopaths in the planned filming of Emlyn Williams’s successful play, Night Must Fall (evidently, Emlyn Williams’s first choice for the role was Dad). Mayer was dead set against the idea and —it has been suggested—that he gave in to my dad’s wishes only to teach him a lesson. Mayer was certain, so the story goes, that my father would fall flat on his face in the part. Such a failure would prove cost effective, Mayer reasoned: My father would learn a valuable lesson and go back to playing the kind of parts Mayer felt he did best. If the idea truly was for Night Must Fall to be a failure, things didn’t quite work out as planned. My dad was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film was a critical and financial success. After that, things were never quite the same again for my father. He began to demand, and gain, more control over his career. He set his sights on becoming an actor/director—following in the wake of the likes of Chaplin and Welles. But the chance to successfully work behind the camera on such films as The Lady in the Lake (1946) and Ride the Pink Horse (1947) didn’t come to him until nearly a decade after Night Must Fall—and several years after he’d scored another offbeat success with his performance in Here Comes Mr. Jordan in 1941.
Like Night Must Fall, Jordan was also a problematic project. Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, didn’t really want to make the film because he felt fantasy films didn’t make money. After Jordan turned out to be a major success, someone at the studio is reputed to have pointed to its popularity as a good reason for making yet another fantasy, but Cohn was stubborn: “Yeah,” he is reported to have said, “but think how much it woulda made if it hadn’t been a fantasy.”
Here Comes Mr. Jordan manages to be not only poignant, but also wonderfully warm and funny. Robert Montgomery stars in the Oscar-nominated role of Joe Pendleton, a lug of a boxer accidentally spirited off to heaven before his time. Claude Rains is the title character whose job it is to find a way for Pendleton to live out his allotted years. (If the plot rings a bell, that’s because Mr. Jordan was remade by Warren Beatty in 1978 under its original story title, Heaven Can Wait.) Winner of two 1941 Academy Awards for Best Original Story and Screenplay, Here Comes Mr. Jordan was a highlight in the careers of not only my father and Claude Rains, but also co-stars Evelyn Keyes (whose character name, Belle, was named after my Mom), Edward Everett Horton and wonderful character actor James Gleason, who received one of the film’s seven Oscar nominations.
Here Comes Mr. Jordan joins the list of exceptional films Dad made that are becoming more available for us to see, thanks to home video. It isn’t your typical whimsical tale, but a fantasy about death that also contains comedy, romance and a degree of slapstick, all of which are carried off in grand high style. Surely, any film that successfully satirizes Heaven without offending anyone has to be considered as being in a class all its own.
I have had a super time researching and writing these notes. I am proud of Dad and his accomplishments in our crazy profession. He was, and is, a wonderful and versatile actor.