We ran across this quirky movie more than a dozen years ago and have kept it on the Christmas cinema catalog ever since. It was produced by Lee Garmes, who had far greater fame as a cinematographer with credits such as Scarface (1932), Shanghai Express (1932) and Gone with the Wind (1939), though he did not receive credit for his work on that classic film. Dealing with life and death and life-after-death issues, the story is a strange mix of sappiness and bizarre theology, but the central, engaging theme is hope in redemption and transformation.
Two aging engineers (cynical Harry Carey and gracious C. Aubrey Smith) are still working late on Christmas Eve when their jovial partner (Charles Winninger) bursts into their shared home with stacks of holiday packages. What looked to be a boring evening for the old men is changed when two lonely young people appear on their doorstep: a down-on-his-luck singing cowboy (Richard Carlson) and a compassionate nurse (Jean Parker). By the end of the evening all have formed a warm friendship, and Carlson and Parker are falling in love. The group’s happiness continues for weeks, until the three engineers are killed in an airplane crash. They reappear in their home as ghosts watching over their young friends while waiting to learn what happens next in their life after death. Carlson lands a spot on a radio broadcast and catches the eye of a wicked Broadway star (Helen Vinson), who ensnares the naïve young man and entices him with a role in her next show. While the ghosts are worrying about the future of their young friends, lightning and thunder summon the cynical Carey, who has an unexplained scandal in his past, to a dark smoky place (Hell?). The gracious, courtly Smith is welcomed to Heaven by his deceased son, who explains that mother is waiting for them in a perfect re-creation of the favorite period in their life. The jovial Winninger remains, following the troubled young lovers and trying to get Carlson back with Parker. When a voice beckons Winninger to Heaven, he decides to stay in the world to help his friends, apparently giving up his one chance for paradise. Carlson and Vinson are shot by her drunk former husband, and when Carlson dies on the operating table, his ghost meets Winninger, who explains how he had tried to help Carlson make better choices. Heaven welcomes Winninger again (with the disembodied voice saying that Winninger’s mother had been hounding everyone in Heaven to give her son a second chance). Winninger in turn intercedes for Carlson, who is restored to life and love with Parker. Finally, Harry Carey emerges from his dark place (so was it Purgatory instead of Hell?) having shed his cynical bitterness, and he ascends to Heaven walking arm in arm with Winninger up steep steps. Whew!
NEW YORK CONNECTION
The film is set in Manhattan, with several street scenes near Central Park.
The film begins on Christmas Eve and has one of the sweetest celebrations you’ll find in any film, with even the cynical Harry Carey being warmed by good fellowship and carols and a special drink (see below). The film joins a long tradition of another type of Christmas spirits, starting with Dickens and, several years after this film, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and The Bishop’s Wife (1948). You can also add a squirrel to the special holiday helpers tradition with The Great Rupert (1950), which is also a mainstay of our Christmas watchlist.
Helen Vinson, who played the catty, adulterous Suzanne in In Name Only, plays another bad girl in this movie as the devious Broadway star who ensnares Richard Carlson. Vinson seemed to specialize in faded femme fatale roles in such films as The Kennel Murder Case (1933) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), but early in her career she played a sympathetic role opposite Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).
Robert Homans, the police sergeant in the park on Christmas Eve, also appears in Holiday Inn (1942).
Rod LaRocque plays Phil Hubert, the producer. We will see him in Meet John Doe (1941) as Ted Sheldon, the swarmy nephew of the evil mastermind D.B. Norton.
Harry Carey, who plays the cynical partner, had roles in hundreds of films starting in the silent era. He appeared in many westerns directed by John Ford, but my favorite among his many parts is as the Vice President in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
C. Aubrey Smith is another ubiquitous character actor who appeared in such classics as Rebecca (1940), Wee Willie Winkie (1937) and Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).
The Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya is probably best known as the gypsy fortune teller Maleva in The Wolf Man (1941). Before immigrating to the United States in 1922, she studied with Stanislavski in Moscow. Appearing on Broadway for a decade, she ran an acting school in New York, before moving to Hollywood for roles that would help fund her school.
Jean Parker, who plays the love interest in Beyond Tomorrow, appeared in a similarly sweet and innocent role in the under-appreciated comedy The Ghost Goes West (1935).
Alex Melesh, who plays the servant Joseph in Beyond Tomorrow, plays a waiter in Warsaw in another under-appreciated film, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) with Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.
Charles Winninger appeared a half dozen times with Fred Astaire on concert benefit stages from 1920 to 1933 and was also a fellow member of the Lambs Club. He originated the role of Captain Andy in Show Boat (1927) on Broadway and reprised it in the 1936 film version with Irene Dunne. His best role is as Dr. Enoch Downer in Nothing Sacred (1937), starring Frederic March and Carole Lombard. His brother-in-law, Cyril Ring, plays a small part in Beyond Tomorrow (the man who reports no hope for the airplane crash victims). Winninger’s wife, Blanche Ring, also appeared with the Astaires in their Broadway benefit concerts.
Frank Tours, the music director for Beyond Tomorrow, had been the orchestra director in Astaire’s first Broadway show, Over the Top (1917), and the music director for his biggest Broadway flop, Smiles (1930).
WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE
Beyond the character actors and the quirky storyline, the biggest takeaway from this film is the reference to the warm holiday drink, Tom and Jerry, which is poured out at the Christmas Eve party by Charles Winninger. I had never heard of this drink until this movie. (There will be another offhand reference in The Apartment.) I looked up the recipe, and it has become a nice, warm alternative to eggnog during our December evenings. Enjoy!