Can you imagine, just for a moment, what A Christmas Carol might look like if it were told from the perspective of the three ghosts? That isn’t quite what’s going on in Beyond Tomorrow — released in 1940 and later retitled as Beyond Christmas by some distributors — but it’s as good a way as any to get the general idea across. The target of the ghostly help is nowhere near as far gone as Ebenezer Scrooge, and indeed is just a nice guy in danger of losing his way, but the help is needed nevertheless. And the ghosts, rather than being mysterious figures of Christmas and time, are much more human.
Much more human indeed, as the protagonists of A. Edward Sutherland’s film start off as living humans in the film.
Friendly undead meddlers.
The film opens up with a trio of business magnates who live together in a New York manor, alone except for each other and their servants. George Melton (Harry Carey) is Oklahoman, and is cynical and gruff, but loyal to his friends. Major Chadwick (C. Aubrey Smith) is a widower from Britain, a bit stodgy but generally cheerful. And Michael O’Brien (Charles Winninger) is an Irishman who has a great enthusiasm for life, and is the heart of the group. While they enjoy each others’ company, and that of countess-in-exile housemaid Madame Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), they have started to feel that they are in a rut, particularly Michael, who thinks they need to meet people outside of business. On a whim on Christmas Eve, they make a bet with a few leftover gift wallets from their company. Each puts ten dollars and their business card and address in a wallet, and throws it out the window to be kicked around the streets, found, and possibly returned. George doesn’t think anybody will return it; Michael believes they will, and the loser has to buy the others dinner at a later date. (Chadwick doesn’t have a stake, but throws his wallet out as well for the fun of it.)
Of course, George’s wallet doesn’t come back, but the other two do. One is brought back by Jimmy Houston (Richard Carlson), a cowboy from Texas, and the other by Miss Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker), a local children’s hospital worker. Neither have any plans for the evening, and so — as Michael planned all along — they are invited to stay for Christmas dinner. Everybody hits it off well, and not only do Jimmy and Jean start to fall for each other, but the three elderly eccentrics take a shine to the young couple and over the course of the next several weeks arrange many more get-togethers. There’s a sense of fun that permeates this part of the film, as it starts with a cacophonous rendition of “Jingle Bells” in many languages, and continues on to the troupe going bowling. The film takes place over the course of a year, starting on Christmas and ending in the same season. (Christmas isn’t explicitly mentioned in the latter portion, but with snow on the ground and fir trees inside buildings, it’s a safe assumption.)
No, no, these are Fourth of July trees. Yeah. It’s just unseasonably cold.
Tragedy strikes the evening that Jimmy and Jean become engaged, as a plane carrying the three businessmen crashes, killing all on board. Here the film begins its second act, and the one which forms the basis for the film’s purpose. Though Michael, George, and the Major have died, they have yet to pass on. They resolve that while they are waiting to be called to their final reward, they will continue to help out their young friends. And they soon need it. After a paper does a human interest piece on the three deceased, and their unusual friendship with the young couple, Jimmy starts to become famous in his own right. He’s a singing cowboy of the Roy Rogers tradition, and lands a recording contract. Richard Carlson does a fine job singing, if indeed it’s really his voice on the songs (with early films such as this, the credits don’t always indicate an assistant voice.) And once that happens, he starts to fall into the clutches of his musical partner (Helen Vinson), who has her eyes on him.
It’s a difficult balance that Carlson has to play here, as he has to show Jimmy’s neglect of Jean and his confused attraction to his partner without ever making Jimmy seem like a heel. He succeeds reasonably well, as it mostly comes across as Jimmy simply being too inexperienced to realize how he’s being drawn in. Vinson is suitably vampish, giving the impression of someone who wants Jimmy solely because he’s there to be had. Meanwhile, Jean Parker as her namesake character gets a little sidelined during this portion (naturally), but has good chemistry with Carlson whenever they share screen time. The stars, however, are definitely the ghosts. Their dialogue and mannerisms around each other are so natural and believable that one really gets the sense that they’ve known each other closely for decades.
The story holds up quite well also. While it’s ultimately a not-too-complicated tale, it’s fun and it doesn’t have the cloying feel to it that it might have had if it had used the romantic couple as the viewpoint characters for the bulk of the film. Viewing things through the eyes of Michael, George, and Chadwick keeps things grounded. And there are some touching scenes to be had in the film, particularly in the scenes where each ghost finally goes on to their eternal reward.
Ghosts and redemption and romance, and it’s a tale that is a little bit different. All in all, not a bad selection for Christmastime.