Christmas Movie Review: “Beyond Tomorrow”

“Beyond Tomorrow” (aka “Beyond Christmas”) (1940) Starring Richard Carlson, Jean Parker, Charles Winninger, C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey, Maria Ouspenskaya and Rod La Rocque. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. From RKO Radio Pictures.

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A rather garish poster for “Beyond Tomorrow”.

It’s a snowy Christmas Eve and two aged businessmen, friends and housemates are hard at work. Allan “Chad” Chadwick (Smith) and George Melton (Carey) are working from home tonight but are keeping their secretaries there late when the third member of their trio, Michael O’Brien (Winninger), shows up laden with Christmas presents. Horrified by his cronies’ oblivion, he disperses the assistants and joyfully declares a holiday. His two friends grumble but then come around.

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Partners, roommates, friends. “Chad”, George and Michael.

The three men share their home with Madam Tanya (Ouspenskaya), a former Russian countess who fled her country with her trusted butler, Josef (Alex Melesh). Tanya and the three men are awaiting guests for Christmas Eve dinner when a telegram tells of their cancellation. Michael tries to buoy the flagging spirits with a bet that if the three men throw wallets containing ten dollars out in the snow, some honest soul is bound to come to the door to turn the wallet in. Two of the three are turned in. One by lonely Texan James Houston (Carlson) and one by pretty school teacher Jean Lawrence (Parker). The two are coerced to stay for supper and a fine time is had by all, Jimmy providing the entertainment with his fine singing voice.

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Street musicians are called in to accompany Jimmy (far right). Listening are (l-r) Jean, George, Michael, Chad and Madam Tanya.

The four older people find their lives changed by the two energetic younger people, between whom a romance is blossoming. Months go by and Jimmy and Jean decide to get married. When they go to announce the happy news to their friends, they are dealt a crushing blow – they learn that the three men have been killed in a plane crash. Their three dear souls, however, are not yet ready to head “beyond tomorrow” and they linger, counselling their young friends in spirit. Much counselling is indeed needed when Jimmy finds fame as a singer but is lead astray by a shallow but glamourous star (Helen Vinson). Can the three spirits convince Jimmy of the error of his ways before he, too, meets a tragic end? And what of the three souls themselves? Where are they destined to spend eternity?

We could – but let’s not – debate the definition of a “Christmas movie”. Let’s just say that “Beyond Tomorrow” counts. Sort of. The action is set in motion because of events that occur on Christmas Eve. It does, however, take more than this to make a film a “Christmas movie”. “Beyond Tomorrow” may not be the film you sit with the family and watch on Christmas Eve but it’s always easier to watch movies with ANY Christmas elements at the end of the year. Seeing Christmas scenes in April either make you long for the Christmas season so far away or – even worse – these “Christmas elements” will not register with you at all; they will fall flat. And that’s sad.

Now that that’s out of the way… RKO made our film as a B picture, not securing any big names to star in it but instead leaning on character actors and two fresh-faced generic-types. London-born director, A. Edward Sutherland, had been a silent movie actor and had appeared in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” starring Charlie Chaplin. He was later directed by Chaplin in “A Woman of Paris” (1923) before he began directing himself. He helmed many average pictures featuring great stars such as William Powell, Fay Wray, Carole Lombard, Spencer Tracy, Douglas Fairbanks, Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, Mae West and John Barrymore. In 1939 he started a notable run directing “The Flying Deuces”, the Laurel and Hardy vehicle that also starred Jean Parker, “The Invisible Woman”, “Beyond Tomorrow” (again with Parker) and “One Night in the Tropics”, Abbott and Costello’s first feature and one of my personal favourites. Sutherland was married five times – briefly to Louise Brooks – and died in 1973.

The film was produced by Lee Garmes who was one of the few noted cinematographers that became producers. Garmes had photographed 1930’s “Song of the Flame”, a lost film noted for being the first Technicolor film shot in widescreen. He was also the cinematographer on five films directed by Josef von Sternberg and he worked on “Scarface” (1932) and on “Gone With the Wind”, on which he was uncredited. He did, however, shoot the legendary railroad yard sequence. His other cinematography credits include: “Jungle Book” (1942), “Footlight Serenade”, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, “Duel in the Sun”, “The Paradine Case”, “Nightmare Alley”, “The Desperate Hours” and “How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life”. “Beyond Tomorrow” was one of only 6 films he produced.

The screenplay for “Beyond Tomorrow” was written by Adele Comandini, who would go on to co-write the script for “Christmas in Connecticut”.

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Winninger as “Cap’n Andy”.

Charles Winninger portrays the sprightly Irishman Michael O’Brien. Winninger was noted for originating the role of Cap’n Andy Hawks in the stage musical “Show Boat”; he also played the role in the 1936 film version. He had also previously appeared in “Nothing Sacred” and “Destry Rides Again”. After our film, he could be seen in “Ziegfeld Girl”, “State Fair” and “Lover, Come Back”. He also made a notable television appearance on “I Love Lucy” as Barney Kurtz, an old vaudeville partner of Fred’s (“Mertz and Kurtz”). But get this: Winninger was married from 1912 to 1951 to actress Blanche Ring. Her sister, Julie, was also an actress and had a son – A. Edward Sutherland, our director. So, in “Beyond Tomorrow”, Eddie is directing his Uncle Charles!

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Smith as he looked in the 1880’s playing cricket for Sussex County. Solid looking dude.

C. Aubrey Smith is a fascinating character for whom acting was an afterthought. Born in London in 1863, Smith went to South Africa in his early 20’s to prospect for gold. While there, he contracted pneumonia and was wrongly pronounced dead. Later, quite alive, he became a cricketer and was known as the one of the best bowlers to play the game. After starring for the England cricket team became a bore he took up acting, appearing on the stage beginning in 1896. By the time he arrived in Hollywood, he was in his late 50’s and soon cemented his reputation as the “English officer and a gentleman” actor of choice. He appeared in countless notable films during his 25 years in Hollywood, including: “Show People”, “Tarzan the Ape Man”, “Bulldog Drummond Fights Back”, “Cleopatra” (1934), “The Prisoner of Zenda”, the 1937 film version – Smith had appeared on stage in a production of “Zenda” in 1896! – “Five Came Back”, “Another Thin Man”, “Rebecca”, “Waterloo Bridge” and “Little Women” (1949), his final film role.

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C. Aubrey Smith as we better know him.

Smith was considered the unofficial leader of the British film colony in Hollywood and the members of Smith’s group included David Niven, Ronald Colman, Rex Harrison, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Leslie Howard. This group – with the addition of Boris Karloff and some select Americans – made up part of the membership of the Hollywood Cricket Club which Smith founded in 1932. He had a pitch built in Griffith Park with grass imported from England. This cricket ground included a pavilion which still stands today, although it is used for a wedding reception center at the Burbank Equestrian Center. Remarkably, the HCC continues to be a major force in furthering the sport on the west coast, boasting four teams in separate divisions of the Southern California Cricket Association. Smith was knighted in 1944 and died in December of ’48, leaving his wife of 52 years and a daughter, named Honor.

Harry Carey had been a Broadway actor and a silent film superstar. By the time he appeared in our film, he had made literally hundreds of films, most of them westerns. In 1939, he received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the President of the United States in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. After “Beyond Tomorrow”, he made several films with John Wayne: “The Shepherd of the Hills”, “The Spoilers”, “Angel and the Bad Man” and “Red River”. He died in 1947 and he was eulogized in the credits of the 1948 John Ford-John Wayne film “3 Godfathers”, which introduced his son, Harry Carey, Jr. And speaking of regulars in John Wayne movies, watch for Hank Worden in “Beyond Tomorrow” who appears in one small scene and has one line.

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Maria looking less severe than usual.

Maria Ouspenskaya was a Russian stage actress who had studied under Stanislavsky and who started an acting school of her own in New York City which had at one time Anne Baxter as a student. Ouspenskaya only began acting in films to earn the funds to save her financially struggling school. Her first role was in “Dodsworth” (1936), for which she garnered an Oscar nomination for one of the briefest roles ever so honoured. She went on to appear in “Love Affair”, “The Rains Came” and “Judge Hardy and Son” before making “Beyond Tomorrow”. Maria also appeared (with Smith again) in “Waterloo Bridge” – one of 6 films she made in 1940. She went on to make “Kings Row” and to memorably portray the gypsy Maleva in two Universal horror films, “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”. A heavy smoker, she fell asleep with a lit cigarette and suffered massive burns. She died of a stroke three days later in November of 1949.

“Beyond Tomorrow” was Richard Carlson’s seventh film. I already profiled Carlson – sort of a poor man’s Dennis Morgan – in my review of “The Maze”. Suffice it to say that Carlson was a reliable second or third lead and he also wrote and directed.

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Habitual bikini-wearer Jean Parker.

Jean Parker was a dish who looks to me like Celine Dion only prettier. Parker was a serial bride getting married four times in 15 years. She made many minor films perhaps the most notable of which was the Laurel and Hardy vehicle “The Flying Deuces” (1939). Notably, in 1951 (when she was 36) she was visiting Bondi Beach in Australia. A “swimsuit inspector” measured (?) her bikini and deemed it inappropriate. The inspector claimed the suit was “below all decency” and Parker was ordered to leave. “You are making an exhibition of yourself”, she was told, “please go”. The story made the Australian papers and Parker was quoted as saying “I have worn this swimsuit in California and several places without complaint…I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life”. Jean Parker lived to age 90 and died in 2005.

Minor roles are played by Helen Vinson and Rod La Rocque. Vinson had made a career of playing the “other woman” in films alongside the likes of William Powell and Kay Francis. She wasn’t much for Hollywood and quit acting in 1945 – aged 38 – after making “The Thin Man Goes Home”. Interestingly, in “Beyond Tomorrow” she plays a city gal opposite the Texas horseman played by Carlson, who has to explain to her all about horses and life in Texas. In real life, Vinson was born in Beaumont, Texas and had a lifelong passion for horses. Rod La Rocque (French Canadian father) had been a silent film star who married Vilma Banky at a much publicized wedding. Interestingly, he and Banky remained married until his death in 1969. By 1940, he had fallen a long way to the point where he had a very small role in this B picture. After “Beyond Tomorrow”, he made only two more films and then became a real estate broker. You can read a fascinating article on the La Rocques from the Milwaukee Journal, February 2, 1949, here.

“Beyond Tomorrow” is a pleasant, tidy little film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called it “a latter-day Christmas carol” and spoke glowingly of the first third of the film stating, though, that when the three men return as “celluloid chimeras”, the film becomes “preposterous”. The characterizations, though, I feel are well handled. Of the three senior spirits, Michael and “Chad” are optimists; when Jimmy starts his singing career, they are positive about it. George, the pessimist with the dark past, is not so buoyant. These three play their roles well. Carlson, Parker and Ouspenskaya are also effective in their roles.

The scenes depicting the three being called to the beyond are intriguing. George faces uncertainty in the afterlife but Michael and Chad are rewarded with Chad going back to “the regiment”, the place and time he loved most in life. Michael hears his beloved mother calling him but he sacrifices his happiness to remain and help the young lovers – and for this he is ultimately rewarded. The “chimera” effect is well achieved by photographic means as opposed to today’s CGI and I always like to give props to the filmmaking pioneers who made these things happen with their prowess with the camera and film development techniques.

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This film was colorized in 2004 and released on home video as “Beyond Christmas”, obviously to maximize it’s marketability as a “Christmas movie”. It long ago fell into the public domain and can be had for cheap in many different low-rent versions. It is also available to watch on YouTube here.

 

 

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