Holiday Film Review: Beyond Tomorrow (dir by A. Edward Sutherland)

I’m standing at the edge of tomorrow
And its all up to me how far I go
I’m standing at the edge of tomorrow

I’ve never seen such a view before
A new world before my eyes
So much for me to explore
It’s where my future lies

Today I’m standing at the edge of tomorrow
From here the future looks bright for me
And it’s all up to me how far I go
It’s my time to break away
I’m standing at the edge of tomorrow

Beyond Tomorrow is a strange film from 1940.  Technically, it is a holiday film.  It takes place during the Christmas season and there’s a lot of very peppy scenes featuring people celebrating the holidays.  I watched the movie with my friends in the Late Night Movie Gang.  We’re a pretty sentimental group but even we felt that some of the characters went a bit overboard with the holiday cheer.  The film is also comedy and a romance and a musical and a ghost story and a melodrama and finally an oddly sincere meditation on life and death.  That’s a lot of weight for one film to carry and there were more than a few times that Beyond Tomorrow seemed like it might collapse in a heap of Christmas ambition.  Fortunately, the film always righted itself and, in the end, it actually managed to be …. well, definitely more interesting than what any of us were expecting!

The film opens with three businessmen (Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith, and Charles Winninger) living in a mansion with their Russian housekeeper (played by Maria Ouspenskaya, who was also the old gypsy lady in The Wolf Man).  As almost something of a lark, the three men arrange for James (Richard Carlson) to meet Jean (Jean Parker).  Jean is a teacher.  James is a singing cowboy from Texas.  Together, with the encouragement of the three businessmen, Jean and James get together.  Awwwww!

Unfortunately, the three businessmen are then all killed in a plane crash.  However, their ghosts remain on Earth and watch over the growing love between James and Jean.  Unfortunately, James become a singing sensation on the radio and soon, he’s being tempted to cheat.  Meanwhile, Jean’s ex-husband is running around with murder in his heart and a gun in his hand!  This romantic comedy has suddenly taken a very dark turn!

While the three ghosts look after James and Jean, they consider why they’re still on Earth and not in the afterlife.  One ghost is eventually greeted by his son, who died during the Great War.  Another one of the businessmen is haunted by vaguely defined sins and, even in death, he refuses to repent because he feels that he doesn’t deserve to go to Heaven.  Instead, he continually walks off into the darkness.  The last businessman continually tries to push James and Jean on the right path but it turns out that it’s not easy for the dead to talk sense to the living.

You can probably give yourself whiplash trying to keep up with the film’s tonal changes.  It starts out with romance and comedy and then suddenly, it’s turns into an existential rumination of love, forgiveness, and guilt.  Once the three businessmen die, it becomes a totally different story.  Suddenly, soldiers are returning from the dead and the gates of Hell are beckoning.  And, on top of that, James keeps breaking out into song every few minutes!

It’s a very strange film.  Unfortunately, from the start, the pacing feels off.  By today’s standards, Beyond Tomorrow gets bogged down in all of the songs and the scenes of holiday mirth-making.  That may not have been as much of a problem for audiences in 1940 but I have to say that, speaking as someone trying to watch this film in 2020, Beyond Tomorrow made my ADD go crazy.  If not for my friends and their patient willingness to inform me what was going on in the film, I probably wouldn’t have been able to follow the film’s storyline.

That said, the film was fairly well-acted and the final scenes, with the heavenly gates in the sky, are undeniably effective.  Speaking as a history nerd, I found it interesting to see how the shadow of World War I still hung over a film that was made 21 years after that war ended.  As the scenes in which one of the ghosts is a reunited with son showed, America was still dealing with trauma and horror of the first modern war.  (One year after the release of Beyond Tomorrow, Japan would bomb Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II, a conflict that many hoped to avoid precisely because they remembered the all of the men who didn’t make it home during the previous war in Europe.)  Messy though the film may be, Beyond Tomorrow functions well as both a historical document and a bit of sentimental wish fulfillment.

Compared to holiday classics like the original Miracle on 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life, Beyond Tomorrow is relatively unknown.  Certainly, it’s no classic.  But, for fans of both Christmas and old movies, it’s still an interesting trip into the past.