Judge Diane Wild spares some holiday cheer for this second-tier Scrooge peer.
Every love has a guardian angel.
If fruitcake and rum balls aren't sweet enough for you over the holidays, this 1940s movie will help satisfy your sugar quotient. Beyond Christmas isn't a classic along the lines of It's a Wonderful Life or Scrooge, but it could be a nice occasional substitution for those of us who believe you can definitely have too much of George Bailey and Tiny Tim in one lifetime.
Facts of the Case
Three elderly business partners and friends are disappointed to learn that their expected Christmas Eve guests have cancelled. In the hopes of sharing their repast with some deserving strangers, they throw three wallets, each containing $10 and a business card, onto the sidewalk and wait for them to be returned.
These being the streets of New York in 1940 rather than today, their hopes are fulfilled. An attractive young woman and man each return one and are duly invited in for dinner, where a romance develops between Jimmie (Richard Carlson) and Jean (Jean Parker). The lonely old men (Harry Carey, C. Aubrey Smith, Charles Winninger) act as guardian angels to the couple, even before a plane crash takes their lives and they return to earth as ghosts to watch over them. Jimmie's newfound success as a singer under the tutelage of the wanton (read: divorced) Arlene Terry (Helen Vinson) threatens his engagement to Jean, while the three ghosts try to keep the couple together.
The movie's most endearing trait is that the five central characters—Jimmie, Jean, and the three men—genuinely care about each other and treat each other with kindness and affection. Not even death can stop them—though the evil Arlene can.
Besides their charming desire to stuff turkey into complete strangers, the men tactfully give down-on-his-luck Jimmie an overcoat and comfort each other over their individual life disappointments, then all five bring holiday cheer to sick children at the clinic where Jean works. And it's not just the spirit of Christmas at work—these people are this nice year-round.
The movie lacks some needed emotional punch by glossing over the development of the relationships. For example, we see Jimmie and Jean becoming closer via the written pages of a diary, rather than by seeing them together. Jimmie and Arlene's flirtation isn't given quite enough air either. In that case, though, the script obviously can't allow Jimmie to be a complete villain for neglecting Jean and falling into Arlene's clutches, so the vagueness of their relationship allows the audience to continue rooting for him to listen to those voices in his head—voices that belong to the three ghosts—and return to Jean.
The benevolent ghosts aren't given enough interaction with the living for this film to quite work along the lines of similarly themed It's a Wonderful Life or Topper. It's not clear that they have much influence over the actions of Jimmie and Jean—they're just sort of there commenting on the action.
They are involved in their own drama as each is called away to The Great Beyond—one to a bleak downward place because of some transgression in his past, the other to meet his son in paradise, and another who is doomed to "wander the shadows of the earth" because he gives up his chance at the Pearly Gates in order to lead Jimmie down the right path again.
The cheesy, pre-CGI effects in these scenes inject some unintended humor to the movie, but the good-natured characters offer other completely intentional smiles as well. There might be a fine line between sappy and sweetly sentimental, and this movie often crisscrosses that line wildly, but overall it succeeds in striking a nice balance between eye-rolling and heartwarming.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Beyond Christmas DVD is brought to us by Fox and Legend Films. They mean it as marketing hype, but take it as a warning: "Legend Films is a studio specializing in restoring and colorizing classic films."
Apparently in the Fox-Legend Films dictionary, "restoring" is defined as changing the title and recutting the film. Originally released as Beyond Tomorrow, the DVD now boasts several minutes of deleted scenes. Did they really delve into the vaults and get unused footage? No. They cut the scenes and packaged them as an extra—kind of like a doctor taking out your appendix and then wrapping it up as your Christmas present. Most of the deletions would have given much-needed background for the climactic moment, which without them seems forced and disconnected.
Slightly better extras, only for their nostalgic value, are a set of vintage public service announcements, featuring Bob Hope for the Tuberculosis Association's Christmas Seals and Bette Davis for War Bonds.
The good news is that the original black and white version is included. The bad news is that it's called an extra—the colorized version is the main feature. I'm not a fan of colorization (a philosophy that can be summed up with the cliché: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"), but I am a fan of choice (applicable cliché: "to each his own"). But the colorization is just bad, with skin tones that range from ecru to pale orange, and cotton candy pastels seem to shade everything else.
Neither version offers a stellar visual experience, even for a film of this era, containing extensive scratches and grain, fuzzy images, and missing frames. The mono audio won't impress today's ears, but it's mostly free of distortions and the dialogue and songs are clear.
It's not likely to become that family favorite you watch year after year, but Beyond Christmas is worth adding to your holiday collection.
Fox and Legend Films are condemned to walk the shadows of the Earth until they learn not to tamper—badly—with the creations of others.
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Scales of Justice
• Color and black and white versions
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