“Live fully while you may and reckon not the cost.”
Unexpected encounters with death and either angels or the devil have been the subject of several films over the years. Death Takes a Holiday (1934, Paramount) is a fine early example, while that film’s updating as Meet Joe Black (1998) merits more attention than it has received. The title “Heaven Can Wait” has created some confusion for films of this nature. A play with this title, written by Harry Segall, was the basis for Columbia’s excellent 1941 film Here Comes Mr. Jordan in which boxer Robert Montgomery meets the celestial registrar (Claude Rains) much sooner than he should have due to an error by an over-eager heavenly messenger. This film was remade in 1978 under the title Heaven Can Wait starring Warren Beatty. [Editor’s Note: The story was also retold as the 2001 Chris Rock film Down To Earth.] To complicate matters, there was a 1943 Fox film directed by Ernst Lubitsch also entitled Heaven Can Wait, but although it has a meeting with the devil as part of its plot, the film has nothing to do with Segall’s story. Then just to mix things up even further, Segall himself came up with a new story that owed a lot to his earlier play and it served as the basis for 1946’s Angel on My Shoulder in which Claude Rains once again appeared as an otherworldly being, this time Satan.
Originally a United Artists release, Angel on My Shoulder is available on DVD from VCI.
Gangster Eddie Kagle is released from prison and met by his friend Smiley Williams. Smiley has gained considerable power in Eddie’s absence, and unwilling to share it, he kills Eddie who soon finds himself in Hell. There, he manages to strike a deal with Nick, the Devil. Nick will let Eddie return to Earth and help him get revenge on Smiley. In return, Eddie will destroy the reputation of Frederick Parker, an incorruptible judge whom he closely resembles.
Nick enables Eddie to inhabit Judge Parker’s body, but although he tries to discredit the judge’s reputation, Eddie finds himself more and more affected by the judge’s innate goodness. He is also drawn under the spell of Barbara Foster, the judge’s fiancée, and realizes that he cannot carry out his part of the bargain he made with Nick.
In an attempt to force Eddie to comply, Nick arranges to bring Smiley to town and place him in Eddie’s sight with the hope that Eddie’s desire for revenge will change his mind over reneging on his deal with Nick.
Angel on My Shoulder is not quite in the same league as Here Comes Mr. Jordan partly because it lacks the freshness that that film had and it also does not possess the same level of production values. Still, it remains an entertaining film mainly due to the efforts of Paul Muni (Eddie) and Claude Rains (Nick).
Let’s be clear on one thing. Any film that has Claude Rains in it is worth seeing. Rains was a superb actor who managed to bring class and weight to any role he played. One has only to think of the numerous Warner Brothers films of the late 1930s and early 1940s that he graced with his presence in parts both large and small — titles such as Now Voyager, Casablanca, King’s Row, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mr. Skeffington, They Won’t Forget, and so on — to realize what I mean. In Here Comes Mr. Jordan, his embodiment of the celestial registrar was the ultimate in suaveness. The approach in Angel on My Shoulder is somewhat different. Nick is obviously a little rougher around the edges and quite willing to get his own hands dirty rather than relying upon his assistants, but he’s still the master of wry humour. Rains’ version of the devil is no one-dimensional bad guy, but a character seemingly possessed of human qualities both good and bad that elicit our disdain or sympathy as appropriate.
Paul Muni’s flamboyant style of acting is not for everyone. He was very successful in the 1930s with his biographical portraits for Warner Brothers in the likes of The Story of Louis Pasteur and The Life of Emile Zola, but after he left Warners to freelance in 1940, his stock fell. He had never been completely happy acting in films and he returned to the stage in the latter part of the decade. His last film before doing so was Angel on My Shoulder. His Eddie Kagle characterization flirts with being a Runyonesque caricature, but his earnestness in the role prevents it from going over the top. He interacts well with Rains and the two draw the very best out of the material. Perhaps the lasting image of the pair is their appearance on (and later disappearance from) Earth via one of those delivery elevators that arise out of the ground through a covered grating in the sidewalk.
Anne Baxter is effective as the judge’s fiancée and the fine supporting cast includes the likes of Erkine Sanford, Hardie Albright (Smiley), and unbilled Addison Richards, Jonathan Hale, and Ben Weldon. Dimitri Tiomkin is credited with Angel on My Shoulder‘s modest soundtrack, one of dozens for which he was responsible each year during the 1940s. The film was also veteran director Archie Mayo’s last — not a bad one to retire on.
VCI’s DVD transfer is not bad. There’s been no restoration done, but the source material is far from the worst I’ve seen. The resulting transfer sports plenty of speckles and scratches and there’s a vertical line in evidence a couple of times, but it’s quite workable. The image ranges from quite crisp to very soft, but the latter is infrequent. Otherwise, the image is a little dark overall, so that good shadow detail is sometimes lacking. For a title that is usually grist for the public domain mill, VCI’s effort is the best version I’ve seen.
The mono sound is adequate for the dialogue-driven film. There are no subtitles provided.
A welcome supplement indeed is a 1941 Leon Errol comedy from RKO entitled Lord Epping Returns. Anyone who has seen the Mexican Spitfire films starring Lupe Velez and Leon Errol will recognize the Epping character as being that series’ most entertaining figure. The short presented here is an amusing short version with the usual mix-ups between the Epping character appearing and disappearing and being constantly mixed up with Errol pretending to be him. Watch the short before the feature to get a more Saturday matinee feel to the whole show. The disc also includes short biographies with selected filmographies for Muni, Rains, Baxter, Mayo, and Tiomkin.
Angel on My Shoulder is an engaging fantasy that is often overlooked due to its public domain status. But no one should overlook a film with Claude Rains in it. Here he has a major role as Nick, the Devil, which he plays with obvious enjoyment. The plot is far from novel in cinematic history, but is at least a bit of a twist on the standard formulation. Production values are merely average. VCI’s DVD presentation, which was released almost two years ago, is the best version of the film that I’ve seen so far, despite its limitations. Recommended.