(SPOILERS) This one’s definitely a Christmas curiosity. With such a premise – including throwing in a “twist” halfway through, assuming you haven’t seen the movie poster (bottom of the page) – and a surer hand at the tiller, you suspect it would have played like gangbusters. Dusted off and spruced up, it might even be an evergreen, ripe for its own remake: a kind of Yule Ghost, with a couple’s happiness at stake, the divine intervention – or from beyond, at any rate – and holiday season theme would later become central to the ultimate entry in Beyond Tomorrow’s genre, It’s A Wonderful Life.
They have a redemptive theme in common – “Sometimes we have to go to the darkness before we see the light” – and it applies both to those passed beyond (Harry Carey’s George Melton) and those remaining on Earth (Richard Carlson’s James Houston, consorting with a floozy rather than remaining true to his true belle, Jean Parker’s Jean Lawrence). As seems to be common among ’40s Christmas pictures – doubtless A Christmas Carol over-influenced – there’s a focus on haves and have nots.
But where It’s a Wonderful Life’s Mr Potter is unrepentant in his mercenary attitudes (like Mrs Deagle in Gremlins forty years later), those in Beyond Tomorrow and It Happened on 5th Avenue are either openly giving, warm-hearted and caring, or very soon will be. In such pictures, there’s no problem with a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven. An assuagement of guilt, post-Great Depression? Those holding the purse strings telling themselves they aren’t so bad, really? Certainly, the prime offender here is made out to be the glorious revolution, requiring Russian Countess Madam Tanya (Walter Matthau-alike Maria Ouspenskaya, of The Wolf Man fame) to flee her motherland with nothing.
The movie begins with a Christmas Eve bet between wealthy engineers Michael O’Brien (Charles Winninger), Allan Chadwick (C Aubrey Smith) and George. Michael is full of festive cheer, in a very Oirish fashion, and Allan, an-ex Major, is easily persuaded of the virtues of such sentiments. George, in contrast, is a grump who would have everyone working through the night if he could. Curiously, they share a mansion. More curiously still, they share it with Madam Tanya.
The bet has the kind of flippancy later seen in Trading Places – throw their wallets into the street with only a tenner in them, and see who brings them back – but without the underlining sadistic intent. Appropriately, curmudgeon George never sees his again, but Michael’s is brought back by Houston and the Major’s by Jean, sparking a star-crossed romance between the two. One that, for some reason, the three old bachelors seem fully invested in (a montage sees them entertaining revolting orphans, going bowling and all sorts of other unlikelinesses in each other’s company).
There seems more than enough material there in itself, particularly with George’s mutterings – refreshingly left murky – about a dark past, and his moral rectitude when countering the major’s boasts of the great things the British Empire has fostered throughout the world (such as “civilisation to the wilderness” of Australia). However, at about the halfway mark, the trio are killed when their plane crashes in a storm. They return as ghosts to their home (this appears to be a break with lore, where spirits remain in the vicinity of their fatal departure, traumatised and bewildered). It’s rather as if, having believed Marion Crane was the lead in Psycho, she only went and lingered on to haunt Norman after she’d been offed.
The precise metaphysical legislation involved in this happening is unclear, but the newly ghosted are snatched up from limbo to the permanent beyond – no mention of reincarnation here – in gradual order of their decency. So rather the reverse of the expected. George is taken first, summoned by the darkness as it seems, and Michael pleads with him that he can surely stay, “if you’re sorry for it”. But George is unchastened: “What I did needed doing… and I’d be a hypocrite to say I’m sorry now”.
A short time later, the Major’s son David arrives for him (“I heard something. It’s the old bugle call”), and the schema becomes clearer: “Every man gets his dream” (which, alarmingly, is the Major’s old army outpost: halcyon days). It’s a recuperative period, which isn’t far from some descriptions of the post-life astral sojourn of some souls, depending on requirements. No disqualification for the wealthy in this dojo, such that we see a returned George at the end, having discharged the bitterness that infused his system.
There is also the warning – from the voice of the beyond, sounding a little like Knight Rider’s KITT – that, should Michael stay on in the lower astral in an attempt to mend the situation between Houston and Jean, he’ll become one of those feckless spirits prone to haunting hither and thither: “It means you will linger in the shadows of Earth, for all time”. Obviously, this voice of wisdom is a bit of a sly one, prone to changing its mind after issuing portents of doom, and subject to the barracking of a fiery Irish matriarch: “Your mother would give us no peace until we came back for you”.
There also seems to be something of a reliance on the pull of the material realm with regard to those staying, for whatever reason, be it unfinished business or, in the case of aforementioned floozy Arlene (Helen Vinison) on being shot by her ex: “She’s gone. She had no soul at all to go on with”. In contrast, Houston meets Michael in the astral, the latter having ascended from the operating table, and pleads with KITT, on the basis the lad deserves a second chance. He was simply “Too young and thoughtless and success came too suddenly”.
Notably too, the Russian countess can sense the presences of the spirits and had a premonition the three men should not fly (Houston also senses George as he heads off with Arlene – “Say, do you believe in hunches?” – but superficial pleasures get the better of him). Other incidents of note include a kindly policeman allowing Houston to ride his horse – and his sergeant not reprimanding him – and a conversation on the merits of Brussel sprouts.
Performances are all pretty decent, with Carey, Smith and Winniger effectively inhabiting their types; there’s thus little need for over explanation. Carlson was having a good run at this point, appearing with Bob Hope in the same year’s The Ghost Breakers and going on to the Oscar-nominated The Little Foxes in 1941. Parker only really gets to be dumped, unfortunately.
A Edward Sutherland’s direction isn’t especially distinguished, but there’s some nice moody photography from Lester White (he also lensed several Rathbone Sherlock Holmes), adding more of an atmosphere than the rudimentary staging in a number of Christmas tales of the era (Lady in the Lake, It Happened on 5th Avenue). Adele Commandi would later pen Christmas in Connecticut. Perhaps the drawback with Beyond Tomorrow is one of perspective, unable to switch focus sufficiently to the young leads because the older trio, and particularly Michael, have commanded the attention. Nevertheless, a likeable little Christmas tale, and interesting for its metaphysical take.