I go to look for a great Perhaps.
— Rabelais on his deathbed
During World War II, millions of Americans were apprehensive about the future and seized by an ever-present fear of death. A 1941 movie called "Here Comes Mr. Jordan," adapted from a play by Harry Segall, tuned in to the spirit of the times. It was the story of a boxer (Robert Montgomery) who is taken away to heaven before the proper date. Thanks to the intervention by Mr. Jordan (Claude Raines), a kindly celestial ambassador, the boxer gets a second go-around on earth. Thirty-seven years ago, people came away from this film feeling good. For a few hours at least, they could believe in the future, immortality, and the triumph of love over time.
Warren Beatty's "Heaven Can Wait" is an entertaining remake of that 1941 movie. Film critics and entertainment analysts have been trying to ascertain why this movie is turning out to be so popular with the public. The reason is basic. Beside being charmingly presented, "Heaven Can Wait" is tapping into a subject of considerable interest in American culture. Over the past eight years, there has been a steady stream of books, films, symposia, plays, TV programs, newspaper and magazine articles dealing with death and dying. The barrier of silence surrounding one of our last societal taboos — frank and open discussion about death — has been broken down.
Following closely on the heals of this development is the release of a spate of popular books on the subject of life after death. The most noteworthy is Raymond Moody's Life After Life, a collection of stories told by those who have "come back from the dead," having been pronounced dead medically and then resuscitated. Although the author admits that these testaments from the edge of death do not prove there is life after death, he does believe that accounts have to be dealt with. At the very least, they force us to clarify our own beliefs about immortality.
Heaven Can Wait then comes on the scene at a time when more and more people are talking freely about death and thinking about what happens to them afterwards. For this reason, the film has special appeal for religious educators. By sponsoring theatre parties to see the movie, you can mine that cultural interest and use it as the foundation for family and group discussions. As Kierkegaard noted in the last century, "comedy is transparency through which we can see the serious." Sometimes all it takes to move a group into a consideration of serious themes is a good introductory experience. This movie is just the start you need to get into discussions on death, immortality, destiny, and the nature of love.
Death in itself is nothing; but we fear to be
we know not what, we know not where.
— John Dryden
Joe Pendleton (Warren Beatty), a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, has just conquered a knee injury and is training hard so that he can start for the club. After a good scrimmage session, his coach (Dolph Sweet) decides he is ready to go against Dallas the following Sunday. Max Corkle (Jack Warden), Joe's best friend and trainer, stops by to celebrate with him.
However, Joe's opportunity is snatched away from him the next day when he is involved in an accident while biking through a tunnel. Before he knows what has happened, he finds himself at a way station in Heaven. His celestial escort (Bucky Henry) has made a mistake and yanked him off earth fifty years ahead of schedule! Joe insists he be returned home. The mix-up is put in the hands of Mr. Jordan (James Mason) a heavenly ambassador who confirms the escort's error. They all set out to find Joe a body since his old one has already been cremated.
After checking into various possibilities, they finally come upon Leo Farnsworth, an eccentric millionare who is about to be done in by his wife Julia (Dyan Cannon) and his executive secretary Tonny Abbott (Charles Grodin). Joe wants nothing to do with this life until he sees Betty Logan (Julie Christie), a British schoolteacher who has come to persuade Farnsworth not to build a refinery in her hometown. One look and Joe knows he wants to help her. He agrees to temporarily become Farnsworth.
Although our hero is used to performing under pressure, he is not quite ready to face up to the challenges of his new life. First, he must keep one step ahead of the murderous intentions of his wife and secretary. Second, he must adapt to Farnsworth's silly clothes and rituals. Third, he must save Betty Logan's village by defending her point of view at a board meeting of his corporation. And, finally, Joe must attempt to get his new body in shape so he can lead the Rams to victory in the Super Bowl.
Again fate intervenes. Just after Joe Farnsworth has won Betty's love and put himself in a position of fulfilling his dreams, Mr. Jordan tells him his time in that body is up. Joe balks at his agreement. But the heavenly bureaucrats have a surprise in store for everyone — Joe, Julia, and Tony, Betty, and Max. The up-temp ending of the movie has got to be one of the most heartwarming finales to any film in many years!
Heaven Can Wait shines in almost every department. The performances are just superb. The screenplay by Beatty and Elaine May is a sprightly blend of wit and wonder. Direction by Beatty and Buck Henry draws out both the comic zing and the special melodramatic glow inherent in the storyline. William Fraker's cinematography is crisp. All the production values, in fact, are top-notch. Highest accolades go to Warren Beatty who successfully juggles four creative functions without missing a beat. Heaven Can Wait is one of those rare movies which deserves to be seen again and again.
If a man die, shall he live again?.