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With its depiction of heaven as a vast bureaucracy, the 1947 fantasy Heaven Only Knows suffered in comparison to the earlier hit Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). Taken on its own, however, the film offers a charming blend of light comedy and Western adventure, while giving Robert Cummings a chance to shine as a white-collar angel sent to Earth to help a Wild West gambler (Brian Donlevy) reconnect with his soul.
In dealing with angels, Hollywood quickly learned that a light touch was best, and such roles have proven particularly successful for character comedians like Henry Travers as Clarence in It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and comic leads like Cary Grant in The Bishop's Wife (1947). Like Grant, Cummings deftly played against his image as a suave womanizer, though Cummings' film played more with sexual innuendo by forcing him to deal not with a group of staid Episcopalian wives but rather feisty dance-hall girls, some in search of love, others looking for the next customer.
The innocence of Cummings' character was partly a result of the Production Code Administration. Particularly sensitive to religious issues, they quarreled with the original screenplay's depiction of his character as the Archangel Michael, fearing that some audiences would find the comic role offensive. Instead, they suggested creating a lower rank of angels, inspiring the writers to turn their Michael into the celestial bookkeeper who discovers that Donlevy has accidentally been born without his soul. The PCA also objected to a scene in which Michael emerges from a burning saloon laden with women's underwear he has rescued, much to the delight of the dance-hall girls. They had no trouble, however, with his rescuing Donlevy's pants from another fire, leading to a New York Times article speculating about the censors' double standard.
Although born in the U.S. the film's producer, Seymour Nebenzal, was best known for his work in Germany, where he produced such classics as Pandora's Box (1929), The Threepenny Opera and M (both 1931). His U.S. films never quite reached those heights, though he came closest with Douglas Sirk's atmospheric romantic tragedy Summer Storm (1944), which helped make Linda Darnell a star. He had to fight Universal for the rights to the title Heaven Only Knows, though on later release prints he changed it to Montana Mike.
Nebenzal filled the cast with reliable character actors like Stuart Erwin, Edgar Kennedy and John Litel. Cast as the villainous westerner who should have become a local hero was Donlevy, an actor whose off-screen interest in writing poetry contradicted his usual casting as tough guys. He also had an off-screen addiction to flying, giving him a lot in common with Cummings, a World War II veteran who had received the nation's first flight-instructor's license.
Originally Helen Walker, a specialist in icy femmes fatales in films like Nightmare Alley (1947), was cast as Ginger, the saloon hostess who falls for Mike. When a car accident put her out of commission, Marjorie Reynolds won a release from her contract with Paramount, where she had been languishing in lightweight roles, in hopes of showing she had more potential for serious drama. Heaven Only Knows didn't exactly spark a career resurgence, but she would achieve a new level of fame a few years later when she signed on to play William Bendix's patient wife in the hit series The Life of Riley.
As the only person in town to realize Donlevy's potential for good, child actor Gerald Perreau also seemed destined for bigger things. Before the film's release, Lewis Milestone cast him as Tom Tiflin in the much anticipated film version of John Steinbeck's The Red Pony. When Milestone decided to change the boy's name to Peter Miles, possibly to avoid confusion with his acting sister Gigi, Nebenzal held up his own film's release so the title cards could be changed. Unfortunately, The Red Pony did not make Miles a major child star, nor did his career survive into adulthood (though he later did well as a novelist).
On its release, Heaven Only Knows suffered from the inevitable comparisons to Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Bishop's Wife. Although Reynolds got some respectable reviews, the film was generally dismissed, as the New York Times put it, as "mildly amusing...tolerable entertainment, with such good moral intentions that one may overlook its self-conscious awkwardness in that regard."
Producer: Seymour Nebenzal
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Screenplay: Art Arthur, Ernest Haycox, Rowland Leigh
Based on a story by Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Art Direction: Martin Obzina
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Robert Cummings (Mike), Brian Donlevy (Duke), Marjorie Reynolds (Ginger), Jorja Cutright (Drusilla), Bill Goodwin (Plumber), Stuart Erwin (Sheriff), John Litel (Reverend), Peter Miles (Speck O'Donnell), Edgar Kennedy (Jud), Gerald Mohr (Treason), Lurene Tuttle (Mrs. O'Donnell).BW-98m.
by Frank Miller