25 Days of Christmas: Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Originally published December 13, 2018
I’m not 100% clear why Beyond Tomorrow is considered a Christmas movie. Maybe it’s because in 2004 20th Century Fox retitled it Beyond Christmas and that, in essence, made people think it was always a part of the season. But then why did they consider it a Christmas movie? Is it because there’s snow? Because it’s about caring for the common man? Because it has ghosts? It’s enough to keep you up at night if you let it. (Actually, the film takes place on Christmas Eve.) Thankfully, Beyond Tomorrow – the title I’m calling it from hereon out – is charming enough that you aren’t constantly bringing up the tacked-on title.
Beyond Tomorrow is reminiscent of other fantastical romantic dramas like I Married a Witch (1942), though it takes nearly 45 minutes for the fantasy to kick in. We meet wealthy industrialists George Melton, Allan Chadwick, and Michael O’Brien (played by Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith, and Charles Winninger, respectively) who live together in a drafty old manor. Lonely on Christmas Eve the three men attempt to draw people to their house by throwing their wallets on the busy street in the hopes that three kind souls will return them, and thus be invited to dinner. Two of the wallets are returned by kindhearted yokel James Houston (Richard Carlson) and the adorable Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker).
Nearly half the film’s runtime involves the acquisition of James and Jean into the three men’s lives. Carey, Smith, and Winninger are simply delightful as three old coots who, at this point, know each other like the back of their hands. You know why these three have been able to live together so long. Each man also has a distinctive aura, with Carey’s George being the curmudgeon, Allan the pragmatist, and Michael the romantic. They have acquired a nice life for themselves, but aren’t glutted on money. These three aren’t wealthy fat cats hoping to create a Pottersville of their own, they simply want companionship. When James and Jean arrive, the trio instantly light up. As Michael’s date book conveys, the three men work their lives around the young couple, finding having the children they’ve always wanted.
So, of course, a monkey wrench has to be thrown into their plans. The trio are sent off on a business trip and decide to take a plane – in 1940! – through a snowstorm. The plane crashes and the three men die. But, in a move right out of Rene Clair’s work or David Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945), the men return from the dead as ghosts and watch over their new child surrogates. Acclaimed cinematographer Lee Garmes worked on this film and the ghost effects are fantastic! You can delineate the characters with the backgrounds – using an effect called Pepper’s Ghost that’s best known as the Haunted Mansion effect in Disneyland – and yet the cobwebby, opaqueness everyone has is eerie. When the trio are called up to Heaven, with actual backgrounds infused with where they’re standing, the effect is seamless. You really believe George is descending the steps to hell or that Allan is being called into Paradise while they stand in a living room.
But the script doesn’t want to devote the entire runtime to the three old men discussing their demise which I’m sad about because it’s far more interesting to watch. Instead James is given a plot about being a singer and being seduced by fame (and a fast woman named Arlene Terry, played by Helen Vinson). Carlson and Parker are certainly sweet and inoffensive, but they’re bland. Their romantic overtures are conventional and familiar. They’re comfort food when the more complex meal is happening “beyond” their plane of existence. There’s more emotion from Michael being called back to see his mother, or Allan’s dead son coming to find him and take him home to his wife, than whether the lovers end up together.
Beyond Tomorrow is an affectionate film about life and death that lacks the impact of something like A Matter of Life or Death, but is entertaining. The trio of character actors are far more affecting than the stereotypical lovers, but that never diminishes the impact of this sweet-tempered Christmas drama.
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