Tuesday, December 22, 2009

God Rest These Merry Gentlemen

Stop me if you heard this one but once upon a time, there were these three ghosts and they were haunting this guy, you see... No, I'm not talking about A Christmas Carol. As much as I love Dickens, I'd like to think that he would prefer that I not mention his name every December. And anyway, I'm talking about yet another story -- the 1940 film Beyond Tomorrow.

Beyond Tomorrow can be described as one of those old-fashioned holiday movies that really should not work but end up doing so anyway. Of course, it helps your appreciation of this movie if you actually like people and have gotten sick and tired of holiday movies that seem perpetually obsessed with gloom and misery. As much as I appreciate social realism, I cannot help but wonder if it's always a kindness to continually remind people of the down side of life at a time when most folks are getting all too many real-life reminders of such a side, especially when said movie does not really have anything novel to say apart from “Life really stinks sometimes, doesn't it?”

Anyway, Beyond Tomorrow does have enough dark scenes toward its end to satisfy the most determined pessimist but it also has a lot of likable characters and a genuine love for humanity. It may lean a bit too heavily on certain character types but it is never eyerollingly bad.

The movie begins in the mansion of three eccentric millionaires. One is a pessimistic Okie named George Melton (played by Harry Caray). Another is an optimistic Irishman named Michael O'Brien (played by Charles Winninger). And the third is an Englishman named Allan Chadwick (played by C. Aubrey Smith) whose temperament falls somewhere between Melton's and O'Brien's. Playing housekeeper for them is a White Russian refugee named Madame Tanya (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) who generally plays mother hen to the three aging bachelors.

The three men are awaiting guests for a Christmas Eve dinner, only to find that the guests have canceled at the last minute. Melton believes it had something to do with an old unnamed scandal he was once associated with; O'Brien tries to persuade him otherwise. When such persuasion fails to lift Melton's spirits, O'Brien decides to conduct a Twainian experiment by going to the window and throwing out three wallets containing only ten dollars and one of the millionaires' business cards. The idea behind the experiment is to select the ideal stranger to be a guest for dinner by seeing who among the passersby is honest enough to pick up a wallet and return it to its rightful owner.

One woman named Arlene Terry (played by Helen Vinson) blatantly flunks the test by taking the ten bucks and tossing the wallet aside. But a visiting young gentleman from Texas named James Houston (played by Richard Carlson) and a female refugee from New Hampshire named Jean Lawrence (played by Jean Parker) prove more honest and return their wallet to their rightful owners. The two honest folks get invited to dinner, get acquainted afterward and celebrate Christmas Eve with the three millionaires and their servants.

Pretty soon it becomes obvious to even the slowest observer that Houston and Lawrence are falling in love with each other and the three millionaires do their part to ease the path of Cupid. But then tragedy strikes and despite a warning from Madame Tanya, the three millionaires end up dying in a plane crash.

The two young people get an inheritance from the late gentlemen and do their best to honor their memory. But the path of true love is never all that easy and pretty soon the two lovers are parted by the above-mentioned Terry. Terry uses the promise of a singing career and her own rep as an entertainer to lure Houston away from Lawrence. At this point the movie enters rather questionable territory by modern standards because even though the movie has already established that Terry is hardly an honest person, it seems a bit much to believe that Houston bears absolutely no responsibility for allowing himself to be seduced by her. Indeed, for such an honest fellow, he seems to forget Lawrence -- his one true love -- remarkably fast.

The three old gentlemen return from the dead and witness all these goings-on but prove powerless to stop them. For a long time, O'Brien remains in denial about the situation, continually insisting to Melton that Houston is a good lad who will eventually see the light. But then Melton is called away to face his own version of the afterlife and it does not seem likely that he will be meeting St. Peter. Then Chadwick is called away to a happier fate and O'Brien alone is left to try to mend matters on the mortal plane. So obsessed he becomes with fixing things that he forgoes a chance to go to Heaven in order to stay on Earth and bring the two lovers back together. But, alas, Terry appears to have a jealous ex and he has other plans...

It is tempting to dismiss this film as yet another predictable soap opera from those thrilling days of yesteryear but I found it quite entertaining. Granted, I wish Lawrence and Houston showed a little more backbone toward the end but then there probably would not be much of a story. Besides, the best part of the movie occurs towards the beginning when we are being introduced to the main characters. Not every movie can make good people interesting and it seems ironic that despite all the palaver from critics about how bad guys are always more interesting than the good guys, this appears to be one of those rare movies in which the good guys are actually more entertaining. I'd rather rewatch that multilingual session of “Jingle Bells” that our heroes take part in during the Christmas Eve party than any scene Terry appears in. And though it's tempting to declare the fate of our characters to be hokey and corny, I kinda like the fact that for all its darker scenes, the movie actually ends on a happy note. Besides, my inner Catholic relishes the thought of an afterlife in which a heavenly messenger can be forced to change his plans because of an especially feisty deceased matriarch -- and I cannot help but wonder my own mother would think of this flick. Somehow I doubt she would hate it.

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