December 12, 2019

It's a Wonderful Afterlife

Poster - Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Now Playing: Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Pros: Good cast of B-movie veterans; Has its share of genuinely touching moments.
Cons: Tests viewer patience with a naive, pseudo-Horatio Alger storyline.

In 2008, a poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion revealed something startling: 55% of the 1700 respondents believed that at some point in their lives, they had been “protected from harm by a guardian angel.” According to Time magazine’s report, this majority belief held up “regardless of denomination, region or education.” (The percentage declined to 37% for those making $150k or more a year - not really a surprise, as many studies have found a strong correlation between lower incomes and religiosity.) 

Perhaps it’s an artifact of a particular time and social climate. In 2008, the nation was on the cusp of the Great Recession and embroiled in a fractious presidential race that was a big, noisy warning of even greater divisions to come. You can forgive people in uncertain times for grabbing any mental lifesavers they can, including the long-shot belief that their as*es just might be saved by a benevolent angel looking down from above.

Maybe it’s time for Baylor to do a follow-up. One wonders if this sort of belief would still hold firm, with church attendance on a steep decline over the past decade. On the other hand, even though the mainstream media keeps braying that the economy has recovered and unemployment is at near-record lows, Americans seem to be jumpy and gloomy and ready to tear into each other at the drop of a hat. More than ever, we could all use a kindly angel to whisper in our ear, if only to persuade us to put down the smartphone for a few minutes.

If these times call for guardian angels, then the 1930s and ‘40s must have required a mass mobilization in Heaven. Predictably, Heavenly guardians and divine intervention figured into more than a few movies of the era. The protagonist of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) is given a new body and sent back to earth after he’s mistakenly called up to Heaven too soon. In A Guy Named Joe (1943), dead pilot turned guardian angel Spencer Tracy looks after fellow pilot Van Johnson even to the point of helping him romance Irene Dunne.

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Travers in It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
"A word of advice Clarence, when you appear before the House
Un-American Activities Committee, just take the Fifth."
And then of course there’s the most popular guardian angel of them all, Clarence from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), who earns his wings by showing George Bailey the value of his life. Considering its current iconic status as one of the most popular holiday films of all time, it’s interesting to note that when it was first released, critical reception was mixed, and it actually lost money -- around $500,000 -- for RKO. To add insult to injury, it even attracted unwanted attention from the FBI, which circulated a memo accusing the film of giving aid and comfort to the communists by “attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters," among other thought crimes. 

In spite of its perceived commie sympathies, It’s a Wonderful Life would eventually earn its wings and take off in the hearts of audiences yearning for a bit of innocent, sentimental nostalgia. It’s perhaps no coincidence that as the country in 2008 entered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, reruns of Capra’s ode to small town America were all over TV during the holidays, and Paramount issued a “collector’s edition” DVD set and blu-ray the following year. 

Of course, not every cinematic angel became a super-star like Clarence. Six years before Capra’s novice angel worked his magic, jovial industrialist turned ghost/guardian angel Michael O’Brien (Charles Winninger) would similarly try to save a lost soul from himself in Beyond Tomorrow (1940). Although the film has been a staple of holiday TV for years and has seen a number of home video releases, it hasn’t quite warmed viewers’ hearts to the extent its younger cousin has.

C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey and Charles Winninger in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
"I've only got a twenty, does anyone have change?"
Beyond opens on Christmas Eve, with wealthy industrialists George Melton (Harry Carey) and Allan Chadwick (C. Aubrey Smith) obliviously working on plans for a new project in the spacious library of their townhouse. Enter jolly old Michael bearing presents and a festive mood in anticipation of a dinner party with invited guests. The household is a relatively large one, with the three wealthy bachelors, Madam Tanya (Maria Ouspenskaya), a Russian countess who fled the communist revolution and who now manages the house for the trio, and a loyal butler, Josef (Alex Melesh).

When the dinner guests cancel at the last moment, Melton, who is a morose cross between Scrooge and Eeyore, is convinced that it’s because of his involvement in a recent scandal (we’re not given details). To cheer everyone up, Michael proposes a fun game of “wallet fishing” (my name for it). The three bachelors each pony up a wallet with a card with their name and address and a $10 bill (the equivalent of around $100 today) in it. From the balcony, they throw the wallets out onto the sidewalk. If anyone returns a wallet, they become an instant dinner guest.

True to form, Melton bets that none of the wallets will be returned. At first it looks like Melton’s pessimism will be confirmed, as a prosperous party girl (we’ll see her later) finds the first wallet and frivolously hands it over to her chauffeur as an impromptu Christmas bonus. But O’Brien is ultimately vindicated, as two honest, not-so-prosperous people show up to return the other two.

Jean Parker and Richard Carlson in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Jean patiently waits for slow, awkward James to propose.
Honest citizen #1 is James Houston (Richard Carlson), a cowboy from Texas whose “aw shucks” demeanor and drawl mask a world-class singing voice (which he uses to wow everyone at the last-minute Christmas party). #2 is Jean Lawrence (Jean Parker), a sweet, dedicated caretaker at a local children’s clinic. Both are alone and near destitute in the big city. After the party, the three bachelors practically adopt the two naifs, having a blast bowling with the pair and playing dress-up and parading around with the children at the clinic. Of course, James and Jean fall in love, with James proposing in that stumbling, awkward way so dear to lovers of old Hollywood romances.

Then, tragedy strikes. The three benefactors have to fly out of state to attend to some business. As they board the plane, Madam Tanya has a premonition that something bad will happen and pleads with them to take a train instead. Sure enough, their plane crashes into a mountain, killing all three.

As their friends and compatriots grieve, word gets out that the wealthy men provided a significant financial nest-egg for Jean and James. The newspapers are intrigued by the human interest angle, and as a result of all the attention, James’ singing aspirations are uncovered.

Faster than you can say “American Idol,” the Texan is invited to demonstrate his talents on a nationally syndicated show, meets singing star Arlene Terry (the posh woman who couldn’t be troubled to return the wallet at the beginning of the film; played by Helen Vinson), and is promptly signed up for Terry’s new touring show. Naturally, as his fame and fortune grows, the once awkward country boy gets stars in his eyes and forgets his engagement to poor Jean.

Maria Ouspenskaya as Madam Tanya in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Madam Tanya senses the presence of her ghostly friends.

In the meantime, the ghosts of the three bachelors have convened back home. They seem to be earthbound for some purpose, and can see that things are going south for Jean as James is increasingly seduced by showbiz and the glamorous Arlene. But being incorporeal spirits, they’re not sure what they can do. It’s left to perspicacious Madam Tanya, who senses the spirits’ presence, to advocate for old fashioned virtues in the face of glittery temptations.

It soon appears that the ghosts’ mission has been called off, as one-by-one they’re summoned to their other-worldly destinations. Old curmudgeon Melton is first, and he stoically shuffles off amidst terrifying thunder and lightning -- it seems that the mysterious scandal has earned him a ride on the down escalator. Stiff-upper-lipped Brit Chadwick is the next to go, as his soldier son -- who obviously preceded him in death -- appears and beckons his dad to join him at a heavenly version of the old colonial post where Chadwick spent his happiest years.

Charles Winninger and C. Aubrey Smith in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
Chadwick prepares to join his dead son in reporting
for eternal duty at Shangri-La.
O’Brien is the last spirit standing (floating?) as things start to come to a head for James. The cowboy's glitzy new life has caused him to cross paths with Arlene’s alcoholic, washed-up singer of an ex-husband (who, to add insult to injury, James replaced on Arlene’s show). When the jovial Irishman is suddenly summoned to his final destination, he demurs, insisting that James is in big trouble and needs his help. The summoner tells him that if he doesn’t go, he’ll be earthbound forever. In spite of the consequences, he decides to stay and do what he can as James’ self-appointed guardian angel.

In contrast to It’s a Wonderful Life, with its depictions of malicious, greedy bankers and alternate reality capitalist hell-holes, there is very little in Beyond Tomorrow that J. Edgar Hoover could have objected to. The film’s wealthy businessmen are mostly kind, charitable, and fun to be around. (Melton, with his dark secret, is grumpy and pessimistic, but down deep has a heart of gold.)

The needy characters at the beginning of the film, James and Jean, aren’t resentful of their lot in life. Like 1940s-era Horatio Algers, they don’t look twice and happily seize on the opportunities afforded by their new benefactors. Similarly, Madam Tanya, who left everything behind fleeing Soviet Russia, seems to want nothing more than to run the household for the bachelors.

I can visualize the old, puritanical J. Edgar giving the film a huge red, white and blue seal of approval. And that’s part of the problem. Beyond Tomorrow is filled with such All-American sweetness and light for so much of its running time, that the eyelids start to droop.

James (Richard Carlson) sings his way to fame and fortune in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
"I'm dreaming of a white limo..."
While It’s a Wonderful Life also indulges in gooily sentimental scenes, it at least has a scene-chewing villain in the form of crabby, avaricious Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) to give it an edge that Beyond sorely lacks. Beyond Tomorrow wants us to hiss at star singer Arlene Terry as a hussy and temptress, but she makes a pretty weak villain -- she has no idea James is engaged to Jean, and she has her own cross to bear with an alcoholic ex-husband who can’t let go.

In fact, James is far worthier of the viewer’s ire. Unaccountably, after the benefactors are killed in the plane crash, James moves into their cushy townhouse while Jean continues to stay in her drab room at the clinic. Once his career takes off, he’s too cowardly to tell Jean the marriage is off to her face, sending her lame excuses by telegram instead.

Everyone -- especially guardian ghost O’Brien -- is fretting about how the poor, guileless Texan is being seduced by Terry and showbiz, as if he’s a child with no control over his life. In contrast, George Bailey’s big mistake is a kind of selfless one -- he concludes that everyone will be better off without him.

Like in many movie romances, the lovers themselves are either boring or irritating. Jean wallows in stoic martyrdom while James follows the women in his life around like a puppy dog. It’s the characters around them that propel the action and elicit the smiles. Beyond Tomorrow is redeemed by the rich “uncles,” who, despite being textbook character types -- the sour businessman with a heart of gold; the stiff-upper-lipped Brit; the jovial Irishman -- are fun to watch with their betting, bantering and matchmaking.

Their ultimate fates in the afterlife provide some of the film’s most intriguing moments. At first, when the three gather back home as spirits after the plane crash, it seems clear that they’ve been given a short time on earth to try to save James from himself. But when Melton and Chadwick are called to their final destinations before the mission is completed, we’re left wondering just what their spirits were doing on earth in the first place.

A shining glimpse of the Great Beyond in Beyond Tomorrow (1940)
O'Brien is summoned to that great Christmas tree lot in the sky.
Each apparently has a different, personalized eternal fate in store. As the Irishman is summoned, the trees before him light up like a heavenly Christmas theme park, and a bright guiding light shines above. It’s especially poignant when O’Brien forsakes such a beautiful eternity to stay on earth to help James.

When Beyond Tomorrow was released, Harry Carey (Melton) was the biggest name, having picked up an Oscar nomination the year before for a supporting role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). He was a huge cowboy star in the silent era, later graduating to more diverse character roles. C. Aubrey Smith (Chadwick) was also very familiar to audiences of the time, having made a career out of playing upper-crust British military men and politicians in such films as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and The Four Feathers (1939).

Regular visitors to this blog (you are out there, aren’t you?) are no doubt familiar with Maria Ouspenskaya (Madam Tanya), the sorrowful gypsy woman in The Wolf Man (1941), and Richard Carlson (James), who was everywhere in ‘50s sci-fi. Richard battled the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), alerted the world to the existence of aliens in It Came from Outer Space (1953), and even directed and starred in his own space opera, Riders to the Stars (1954).

But Beyond Tomorrow belongs to Charles Winninger as Michael O’Brien, who brings buoyant energy to a somewhat stereotypical role, and provides the film’s most touching moment. His character lays everything, including his own eternal peace, on the line for a friend, and we can’t ask for a better example of the Christmas spirit than that.

Where to find it: See Oldies.com for a number of different DVD editions; it's also streaming for the moment on Amazon Prime.