Curiously, although death is one of the things we least like to think about, it also seems to be one of the things we are most entertained by. How many movies can you think of in which nobody dies?
The movies have dealt with death in just about every way imaginable, but I think they are at their most creative when they approach it from a fantasy perspective. And one of the most interesting fantasy conceits of all is what might be called a "transit state" story. These films depict lost souls caught in a kind of limbo state between life and death. Often these characters are required to take care of unfinished business on Earth, or to face some task or obstacle before being allowed admittance to the great beyond.
The current example is "Down to Earth," the new Chris Rock vehicle in which the soul of an aspiring comedian is snatched from his body prematurely. In addition to being a remake twice removed, this film rests upon the foundation of a significant body of work on the same theme. There have been two important cycles of transit state films, the first of which dates back to the 1940s. To see how filmmakers of that period handled the premise, look for these titles on home video.
"Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941). A prize fighter named Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) seems headed for certain death in a plane crash. An over-eager heavenly messenger takes it upon himself to snatch Joe's soul from his body an instant before the crash as an act of mercy. But it turns out that Joe was not in fact destined to die in the crash. He was meant to live another 50 years and to win the heavyweight title along the way. To straighten out this heavenly mess, it becomes necessary to bring in the top man (presumably God, but referred to as "Mr. Jordan"), played with great dignity (how else?) by Claude Rains. The obvious solution of returning Joe to his body isn't available because the body has already been cremated. Mr. Jordan ultimately agrees to place Joe in the body of someone who is just about to die legitimately, but who is also in top physical condition like Joe was. It takes some doing, even for Mr. Jordan, but he accomplishes it. And that's when the complications really begin. In addition to being the direct inspiration for "Down to Earth," this classic comedy also inspired a 1978 remake starring Warren Beatty called "Heaven Can Wait."
"Angel On My Shoulder" (1946). Paul Muni, in one of his few comic roles, plays a gangster who gets bumped off, as gangsters are wont to do. Hungry for revenge, he strikes a bargain with Satan, played by Claude Rains (some range this actor had!). Satan, or "Nick," as he is known in the film, will allow him to return to Earth and avenge his death, but only if he agrees to take over the body of a certain appallingly honest, reform-minded judge. It seems that this judge has been singlehandedly cutting down on Hell's harvest of souls recently, so Nick wants the gangster in the judge's guise to ruin the judge's reputation through misconduct. The dastardly plan encounters a snag, however, when the gangster falls for the judge's fiancee.
"A Guy Named Joe" (1943). Spencer Tracy plays a WWII pilot named Pete (the "Joe" in the title refers to the common nickname for American G.I.s in general). He is an excellent pilot, but too much of a showoff for his own good. This is a source of constant worry for his girlfriend Dorinda (Irene Dunne), who is herself an excellent pilot. When Pete's showboating catches up with him in a fatal crash, he finds himself inducted into another sort of army. He becomes a guardian angel, assigned to sit in the cockpit with pilots who are in trouble and whisper in their ears what they should do. Naturally, he also visits Dorinda and whispers in her ear. Eventually she meets a man to whom she is attracted, putting Pete in a quandary. Should he use his influence to keep them apart out of jealousy or to keep them together out of love for Dorinda?
Next week we'll look at a few examples of the movies' second cycle of transit state films, which appeared some forty years after the first one.