"It's A Wonderful Life" was released on Christmas Day in 1946 and eventually became not only Hollywood's definitive holiday movie but also its definitive angel movie. But while Clarence the guardian angel and his quest to get his wings is the archangel of celestial films, the film is part of a rich fabric of movies featuring all kinds of angels, from guardian to fallen. Once "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" was a hit in 1941, a whole slew of movies about guardian angels emerged. There's something that resonates about angels doing matchmaking, saving lives and cheating to win baseball pennants that strikes a chord with movie audiences. So with a little help from above, here are some of Hollywood's greatest (and oddest) movies about angels.
"Here Comes Mr. Jordan" is an adaptation of the stage play "Heaven Can Wait," and it's the granddaddy of all subsequent guardian angel movies, which boomed in the 1940s. Boxer Joe Pendleton crashes his plane and a guardian angel snatches his soul preemptively, not realizing Pendleton was supposed to survive the crash and live another 50 years. Since his body was cremated, angel supervisor Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains) has to scramble for a replacement corpse for his soul to inhabit. Joe takes over the body of a recently murdered crooked banker, who then gets murdered again, but luckily a different boxer gets killed by the mob, so Joe can inhabit his body, win the title, get the girl, expose the murderers and spawn a dozen sequels/remakes.
Still the standard-bearer for angel movies, "It's A Wonderful Life" originally bombed in theaters but developed a new life on television years after its release. Frank Capra's story about George Bailey, an unhappy man who wishes he was never born, and his guardian angel, Clarence, still resonates with audiences today. It's also about Capra and star Jimmy Stewart returning to movies after their military service, trying to find meaning in their seemingly frivolous Hollywood careers, after the horrors of World War II, which is why the uplifting film has some decidedly dark moments. Still, every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings, and every time "It's A Wonderful Life" appears on TV, Republic Pictures gets a royalty payment from NBC.
Paul Bettany plays the archangel Michael, who comes to Earth to protect a baby who is destined to be the savior of mankind. So he's kind of like the old Terminator in "T2: Judgment Day." Michael goes to the diner where the baby's mom works as a waitress and arms everyone so they can fight a horde of possessed people who are all after the unborn baby, led by rival archangel Gabriel. The whole thing is fairly incoherent, although angels handing out guns to save an unborn baby would be a winning political platform in many states.
Wim Wenders returned to his native Germany to make "Wings of Desire," a film about angels living in West Berlin on the other side of the Berlin Wall. One angel falls in love with a circus performer and decides to forego his immortality and experience human sensations, while a former angel, played by Peter Falk, is making a documentary about Nazis. Thanks to a concert near the film's end, we also learn that German angels love Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Wim Wenders made "Faraway, So Close!," the sequel to "Wings of Desire," as a response to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Once again, an immortal angel becomes human, but this time he's almost instantly corrupted. Cassiel the angel starts gambling, becomes an alcoholic, robs a liquor store and gets involved in a pornography racket. It's a commentary about moral decay in post-reunification Berlin but also reflects how Wenders had converted to Christianity after "Wings." The film also features cameos from Lou Reed and Mikhail Gorbachev, though Gorbachev was not able to leverage the appearance into an acting career.
The original "Angels in the Outfield" from 1951 is about the Pittsburgh Pirates because the Angels franchise didn't exist yet. The helpful angels are inspired by an orphan's prayers, but they're not trying to redeem a player's troubled past or reunite a family; they just want the Pirates manager to stop swearing and fighting so much. The Pirates end up triumphing thanks to the work from their aging starting pitcher (the angels ominously warn he's about to get signed by heaven's baseball team), and the cranky manager adopts the orphan. The film also has the Pirates triumphing over the Yankees, which happened in miraculous fashion nine years later in the 1960 World Series.
In Danny Boyle's third collaboration with Ewan McGregor, Holly Hunter and Delroy Lindo play angels who work in a sort of celestial police department, where angel cops try to make people fall in love. You'd think angels would focus on diseases, famines and wars, but movie angels mostly just want to see people make out. These angels decide to get janitor McGregor and heiress Cameron Diaz together by inspiring a fake kidnapping, threatening their lives and then actually kidnapping Diaz. Eventually through the magic of violent crime and karaoke, the two fall in love and the angels keep their jobs, even though an evil butler shoots them both in the head.
The American remake of "Wings of Desire" moves the location to Los Angeles, replaces Peter Falk with Dennis Franz and tells the story of angel Nicolas Cage (in his least manic role ever) becoming human to be with the woman he's fallen in love with, heart surgeon Meg Ryan. They sleep together one time, and then she's killed by a logging truck while riding her bicycle with her eyes closed. Somehow this is not considered divine retribution for Cage's rejection of the angel lifestyle, and he continues exploring his love of the mortal world...and the Goo Goo Dolls.
John Travolta plays "Michael," a slovenly angel living in Iowa. He loves sugar, cigarettes and booze, as well as dancing in a trench coat. This one is pretty low stakes as far as angel movies go, since Travolta's main goals are to see the Sears Tower and get tabloid reporters William Hurt and Andie MacDowell to hook up. He also gets into a bar fight, brings a dog back to life and wears overalls with no shirt, something only an immortal being can pull off.
Warren Beatty's remake of "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" makes the protagonist a backup quarterback for the Rams, rather than a boxer, whose soul is taken from his body too soon by an overzealous angel. After he's given the body of a murdered millionaire, Beatty buys the Rams and installs himself as the new quarterback, still intent on winning the Super Bowl. The millionaire gets murdered again, but Beatty takes over the body of the Rams' backup quarterback when he's killed by a hard hit on the field, and he finally wins the big game — which is a lot like Tom Brady's first Super Bowl, if there'd also been an unsolved murder. The film got 11 Oscar nominations, winning two, and should have been considered a cautionary tale about the dangers of pro football. A player died during the Super Bowl! Of course these head injuries are dangerous!
Steven Spielberg's "Always" is a remake of "A Guy Named Joe," which replaces the original's WWII pilots with a squad of pilots who fight fires from the air. Yes, Spielberg once actually decided NOT to make a movie about World War II. Richard Dreyfus and Spielberg talked about "Joe" constantly on the set of "Jaws," and Spielberg even sneaked a clip into Poltergeist. In the remake, Dreyfus is a pilot who dies in a plane crash but returns with the help of angel Audrey Hepburn to say goodbye to his girlfriend, Holly Hunter – once he gives up on sabotaging her new relationship with a hot young pilot.
Disney's remake of "Angels In The Outfield" was so successful for them that it bought the real Anaheim Angels two years later. Young Joseph Gordon-Levitt wishes for the Angels to win the pennant, and a squad of angels responds by helping the players to a win streak, although you'd think angels would be above cheating at sports. Eventually the Angels clinch the pennant without celestial assistance thanks to pitcher Tony Danza, who throws over 160 pitches in a victory that would later inspire Grady Little and Dusty Baker. The real Angels won the World Series in the last year of Disney's ownership, getting no assistance from angels, just steroids.
Marlo Thomas stars alongside angel Cloris Leachman in "It Happened One Christmas," a gender-switched remake of "It's A Wonderful Life." The film used almost the exact same screenplay as the original and was denounced by Frank Capra, though the original hadn't achieved its holiday TV dominance yet. It's notable for Orson Welles as Mr. Potter, who was presumably really into French champagne during this era.
"Constantine" depicts a world in which half-demons and half-angels compete on Earth for the souls of humanity. It's the result of a bet between God and fallen angel Lucifer. Keanu Reeves is a human, doomed to hell for a suicide attempt, who is able to see all the angels and demons around him. There's an alcoholic priest who can talk to the dead, a nightclub for immortals run by a witch doctor, and Gavin Rossdale, lead singer of Bush, but the highlight is Tilda Swinton's performance as the androgynous archangel Gabriel. Angels know that gender is only a construct, especially in heaven.
Later remade as "Always," "A Guy Named Joe" is part of the boom of guardian angel movies in the 1940s, probably because so many young men were dying in World War II and audiences wanted films that suggested a life beyond. Spencer Tracy is a pilot who dies on a mission but is sent back to Earth by a figure called "The General" — even heaven had to mobilize for the war effort in 1943. Tracy has to pass on his knowledge to a young pilot, who falls in love with his old girl, Irene Dunne, and eventually guides Dunne as she destroys a Japanese ammunition depot. The Axis Powers had no chance once angels joined the Allied side in WWII.
Adam Sandler stars as the offspring of an angel and the devil in the truly wretched "Little Nicky," which also features a low-budget depiction of heaven . Reese Witherspoon is his angel mother, who gives him a magic orb which summons Ozzy Osbourne to fight demons. It's not clear why angels are invested in the politics of Hades, or how exactly demonic-human procreation works, but somehow the movie ends with "Little Nicky" living in New York City with a human son. As Rodney Dangerfield as Grandpa Lucifer might say, story logic gets no respect in this film.
"Dogma" is the fourth film in Kevin Smith's "Askewniverse," though it presents a brand of theology that you would not have expected after seeing "Clerks" or "Mallrats. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon play fallen angels Bartleby and Loki, respectively, who figure out a loophole that would get them out of their eternal banishment to Wisconsin and back into heaven. Stoners Jay and Silent Bob are the prophets who have to stop them, Chris Rock plays an apostle, and God turns out to look exactly like Alanis Morissette. The Catholic Church thought the movie was blasphemous, while we just think it's a little confusing. But it's definitely the only film with Shakespearean-trained Alan Rickman acting opposite New Jersey roofer-turned-actor Jason Mewes.
Timothy Hutton plays a young man who dies saving a family from drowning and ends up in heaven, where he falls in love with almost-angel Kelly McGillis in "Made in Heaven." The scenes in heaven are quite interesting: It's a place where the inhabitants can simply imagine something or someone and they appear, and anyone can do whatever they aspired to in their mortal lives. Eventually McGillis has to do a tour on Earth in a human body, so Hutton is allowed to return as well, and he's given 30 years to find her and fall in love with no memory of their previous lives, which is a lot less interesting than the heaven stuff. But at least we get cameos from Ric Ocasek and Neil Young, and Tom Petty's finest acting work until "The Postman."
In Paul Hogan's follow-up to the "Crocodile Dundee" films, he plays a petty thief who gets hit by a van while saving a child during a robbery. In the hospital, he's visited by God (Charlton Heston) in a maybe-real, maybe-hallucinated scene where he's told he could become an angel but he's on probation. The is-he-or-isn't-he continues throughout, as Hogan tries good deeds – he gets shot but the gun is full of blanks; he can trigger magical-seeming events with his homemade universal remote. There's also a scene where the almost-angel fistfights a terminally ill man in a wheelchair while sitting on a stool to "even the odds." While the angel succeeds in his quest, the film did not do so at the box office.
After playing a sedate angel in "City of Angels," Nicolas Cage fights fallen angels in "Ghost Rider," a performance that takes much more advantage of Cage's gifts. Let's just say he's not under acting. As the devil's bounty hunter, Cage has to fight the son of Mephistopheles as well as three fallen angels who somehow bonded with the elements of earth, air and water. Though Cage is clearly demonic, his mandate to hunt down escaped demons from hell does put him on the side of the angels — at least the ones who didn't become elemental monsters. Besides, Cage does far too much yelling to find a home in paradise.
When pastor Courtney B. Vance prays for help after an evil developer threatens the survival of his church, he doesn't expect help to come in the form of incredibly handsome angel Denzel Washington. And although he's there to save the church and the pastor's marriage, Denzel ends up falling for the preacher's gospel-singing wife instead. Eventually he foils the developer, after a lot of flirting and countless musical numbers, and Denzel disappears after saving the day. There was some real-life guardian angel business during the filming, as crew members saved a child from a burning building by rushing a ladder to the scene.
When a trolley accident kills four people just as Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Thomas, is born, the four dead become his guardian angels. He's the only one who can see or hear them, but the guardian angels disappear during his childhood out of fear that everyone will think Thomas is crazy. Years later, they reveal themselves again because they can't go to heaven without resolving their unfinished business on Earth. With angels leaping in and out of his body, Downey returns a stolen stamp collection, sings the national anthem with B.B. King, reunites lost family members and learns how to love. It's a secular depiction of angel life, but it's quite heartwarming. Plus it gives RDJ an excuse to sing and do impressions of his angel protectors, including Charles Grodin and Alfre Woodard.
In "The Heavenly Kid," a Fonzie-type guardian angel saves a kid (actually his own son) from dying in a drag race the same way he did. The greaser perishes in a drag race because his bracelet gets caught on a gear shift, which is why tough guys really shouldn't get into accessories. The heavenly kid offers to trade his chance at heaven (or "Uptown") to save his son's life, which ends up being what saves him from damnation, and he eventually heads Uptown on a flying motorcycle.
Guardian angel James Mason helps save Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s marriage in "Forever, Darling." Just like in an episode of "I Love Lucy," Desi ignores Lucy in favor of his work, but this time he’s not a bandleader, but he's a chemical engineer who makes a “revolutionary insecticide." The film itself was an effort to save Desi and Lucy's real-life marriage, but not even a handsome angel could do that, and the marriage — and "Forever, Darling" — ended up as an expensive flop.
In this angelic sequel, Patrick Warburton plays a troubled Angels pitcher who blew a trip to the World Series because he couldn't field a routine ground ball against the Red Sox. It feels like a mildly inappropriate homage to Donnie Moore, the troubled Angels reliever who killed himself not long after giving up the home run that lost a clinching game against the Red Sox in 1986. Former Angels pitcher and current angel David Alan Grier helps Warburton and the team reach a one-game playoff against the fictional Arizona Crimson Devils, featuring a player who made a deal with the actual devil. Of course, angels aren't allowed to intervene in championship games, so Grier's biggest contribution is speeding up a ballet recital. At the end, Warburton overcomes his past and fields a ground ball to the pitcher without divine assistance, which would be more dramatic if it weren't the easiest defensive play imaginable.
Sean Keane is a comedian residing in Los Angeles. He has written for "Another Period," "Billy On The Street," NBC, Comedy Central, E!, and Seeso. You can see him doing fake news every weekday on @TheEverythingReport and read his tweets at @seankeane. In 2014, the SF Bay Guardian named him the best comedian in San Francisco, then immediately went out of business.