Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
'Tis 10 days 'til Christmas, and as she sits 'fore her Mac,
Ms. Twopenny admits her writing's been slack.
Community theatre has taken a great deal of time
The best she can do is excuse herself in rhyme.
In this great season of candy canes and lights,
Ms. T has some little known Christmas movies square in her sights.
So in the spirit of Christmas, in this time of yule,
She'll be reviewing obscure holiday flicks she hope will be cool.
Now enough crappy rhyming that'd cause Clement Moore sorrow
On with the review of the 1940 shlockfest, Beyond Tomorrow.
Tiresome Disclaimer for the Day: Beyond Tomorrow was in the public domain for many years, but got the remastered treatment in a 2004 DVD release, complete with a colorized version of the film (ugh), retitled Beyond Christmas. I was able to stream it on Amazon Prime under its original title.
Beyond Tomorrow doesn't exactly have the most innovative plot in the world; hell, it could be the plot to any Hallmark Channel TV movie. It tells the tale of three workaholic codgers: optimist Michael (Charles Winninger), gloomy sourpuss George (Harry Carey… the actor, not the sports commentator Will Ferrell famously lampooned), and lovably proper Brit Chad (C. Aubrey Smith) live together in a huge mansion with a Russian maid Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya, playing it nice for a change), but are sad because they have no one to visit them for Christmas dinner. Ummm, you guys live together and have a maid, does it really make sense for you to be lonely? But since logic rarely has to play a part in a Christmas movie, Michael decides to throw money out onto the road from their window. Whoever comes in to return it, they'll invite to dinner. Bizarrely enough, this scheme attracts not one, but two strangers-turned-guests: a Texan with the groan-worthy name of Jim Houston (Richard Carlson, who was also in All I Desire), and a lovely teacher/clinic volunteer, Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker). Not only do the three old men befriend the two young people, but Jim and Jean fall in love. Yup, our main couple have alliterative names! Couldn't you just choke on the cuteness?
Tiresome Rant of the Day: I will say, in Beyond Tomorrow's favor, that it boasts a terrific cast of main actors. Charles Winninger and Harry Carey were two beloved character actors, and I must give it up for my favorite of the three old men, C. Aubrey Smith. One of the most distinctive-looking actors of the Golden Age, the towering, white-haired Smith (who resembled a lanky but distinguished walrus) made a jaw-dropping 112 films in his career, remaining active until his death at 85 in 1948 (his final released film was 1949's Little Women). His characters tended to be blustery, slightly pompous, very proper, but always wonderful. His other (and better) films include Tarzan the Ape Man, Rebecca, The Four Feathers, and Waterloo Bridge.
Life is great for the five friends, as Jim and Jean's relationship deepens and Jim shows a talent for singing. Then the three old men are called on a business trip, and Tonya warns them not to go on those new-fangled airplanes, but Michael dismisses her fears. Well, it's no spoiler (seriously, look at the DVD cover) that they die. So much for them. Their ghosts wander the earth and watch Jim and Jean cope with their deaths. They are left a sizable inheritance, and Jean encourages Jim to use to pursue a singing career. Unfortunately, Jim, starts a dalliance with- I mean, falls into the clutches of radio star Arlene Terry (Helen Vinson). Success spoils Jim Houston (ugh, that name!), and he neglects poor Jean in favor or Arlene. As Chad and George are eventually called to a better and worse place respectively, Michael fights to bring Jim and Jean back together, because he's a ghost, and that's what ghosts in Christmas stories do.
Frankly, I've grown weary of the trope of angels being sent to Earth, or ghosts remaining on Earth, to correct utterly trivial problems. They always have to mend a relationship between two random losers, help a team win a game, keep the church from being torn down or some such thing. Good heavens (sorry, couldn't help myself), but can't they do something more important, like, oh, I don't know, help the people in Haiti? Solve the Middle East conflict? Ease Atlanta traffic during rush hour? Something that'll make a greater and more lasting impact?
Call me heartless, but Beyond Tomorrow's conflict was just too slight for me to care about. As disillusioned as I've grown with It's a Wonderful Life, at least that had high stakes concerning a man who made great contributions but was contemplating suicide. Jim and Jean are such uninteresting characters, that I don't really care if they marry or not. If they don't, so what? Jim is on the cusp of stardom and will have hundreds of women throwing themselves at him, and if Jean is such a wonderful person, who's to say she won't find someone else?
I also take issue with how they painted Arlene as a villain. If Mr. Potter from It's a Wonderful Life was too evil, Arlene just isn't evil enough. Yeah, she's shallow, and obviously likes Jim as a boy toy… again, so what? Jim is with Jean, but does Arlene even know that? If she doesn't, Jim is the bad guy in this scenario. Couldn't they have made her more villainous, more calculating, and make her more than not very nice? In one scene, Michael's ghostly form sub-aurally comforts Jean by reassuring her that she's better than Arlene, by virtue of being "prettier, sweeter and younger". Not much of an argument, really, given how flat the characters are; after all, haven't you always found the Wicked Queen way more interesting than Snow White? It doesn't help that Jean and Arlene look too much alike, to the point where I nearly confused them more than once.
And up yours, old man! Why aren't you badgering Jim? He's the one cheating! But, of course, in 1940 Hollywood, it was always the woman's fault. It reminded me a great deal of Swing High, Swing Low, in that a woman is instrumental in breaking up a relationship, even though it's really the guy's fault that he-OOPS!- forgot he had a girlfriend.
Too many crucial details are left uncovered or vague. Arlene has an ex-husband who's an alcoholic, and she allegedly drove him to it (of course), but that's barely skimmed over. Had we learned more, I would have been onboard with seeing her as the antagonist. We learn that George committed a crime in his past, but we never learn what it was or what the circumstances were. Did he kill someone? Embezzle charity money? Rip the tag off the mattress? We never find out. What a waste of character development. The movie ends in high schmaltz and only-in-the-movies theology that I don't care to discuss.
It could be that my shoes are too tight, that my head isn't screwed on just right (sorry, Dr. Seuss), but I don't recommend Beyond Christmas, despite its wonderful cast. Fingers crossed that my upcoming obscure little Christmas movies will fare much better.