Imagining an Afterlife: Movies From the 1930s

Programs in general can be a shared experience, and watching a film that portrays an afterlife, in particular, can open up conversation about your someone’s worries.  If you haven’t read the previous blog, which explores the benefits of watching programs together, check it out.

There is no shortage of film options — what happens after we die has been a consistent theme explored in film since the earliest black-and-white motion pictures.  And this topic can become more fascinating when someone has been reminded that they are closer to the end of life than they like to think, such as:

  • after receiving a terminal diagnosis,
  • when a loved one has died,
  • when a crisis is in the news,
  • when a milestone birthday is celebrated (80, 60, 30?),
  • or for those who are just worriers, unable to ignore their mortality.

These are topics that can be filling the mind and yet difficult to bring up in conversation.  Movies are a way to watch, to think, and to chat with someone who shares the experience.

Black-and-White Films

Full-length movies emerged in the early 1900s, with sound added in the late 1920s.  In some ways, the 1930s were a heyday for film.  The craft by then was fully developed with dialogue, music, lighting and camera effects, script writing, and professional actors.  Filmmakers could depend on high attendance every week, since competition from television had not yet arrived.

Movies from the 1930s were all filmed in black-&-white (and only a few have been colorized since).   Black & white films are an especially nonthreatening way to imagine an afterlife together.  Stories set in the past are less graphic, less close to home, less oppressive in some ways — I often expect actors in old movies to break out into impassioned song and dance or lengthy speeches when a scene becomes intense.  At one time, I poked fun at these qualities in old movies, but when life got hard, old movies could sometimes be less overwhelming that modern shows.

Since the very oldest films can be difficult to find, I have included just a few from the 1930s which are well-known for their portrayal of the afterlife.  To find a particular show, check your library, your old movie channels, and your streaming options.  If all else fails, reading and discussing the movie concepts will be an option, even when the movie itself isn’t available.

1. Outward Bound (1930)

VERSION:  Black-&-white, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Leslie Howard (who later played Ashley in Gone with the Wind).  Originally a play (1924), then a movie (1930), and later a remake titled Between Two Worlds (1944).

MOVIE NOTES:  The author is said to have had the moment of Judgment on his mind after experiencing shell shock in WWI.  Seven people are on a ship without knowing why, eventually realizing they have died and their personal destinations will be heaven, hell, or a half-way point in the case of suicide.   The ship in fog projects an unearthly atmosphere, though film acting was not a fine art yet (they sound like stage actors).

CONVERSATION STARTERS:

  • Is a ship in the mist a good metaphor for the afterlife?  Does it make the afterlife seem eerie?
  • At times, this movie seems to say that we will live in eternity exactly as we chose to live on earth.  Is that how you imagine the afterlife?
  • In other cases, this movie seems to show that even after death we can alter our course.  Would that sort of “second chance” detract from the importance of how we impact other people during our lifetimes?

2. Liliom (1934)

VERSION:  Black-&-white, French with subtitles (subtitles can require concentration, so may not be for everyone during hard times).  Originally a Hungarian play (1909, script can be read at Archive.org), then a 1930 film in English (by Borzage, no longer in circulation), then a 1934 film in French (by Lang, included on the 50th Anniversary Edition DVD of Carousel, 2006), and later morphed into the musical Carousel (1956, Rodgers & Hammerstein).

MOVIE NOTES:  After the pretty, naive Julie falls for the entertaining rogue, Liliom, he is fired by the jealous carousel manager and lives off Julie and others, refusing work that is “beneath” him.  When he hears he’s going to be a father, he decides to try robbery, killing himself when that fails.  After death, Liliom is transported to a heavenly commissioner who assesses his life and may see more in Liliom than Liliom does.  He pronounces some 16 years of “purification” from violence and pride in a fiery purgatory and then a one-day opportunity to choose to do something good.  Liliom seems unchanged:  The man who used to beat his girlfriend now slaps his daughter.  However, in the final scene the little girl says his slap didn’t hurt, which turns the scales of justice in her father’s favor apparently because of his underlying feelings.

CONVERSATION STARTERS:

  • How important is the heart behind our actions?  Does attention to our true feelings lessen the value of high standards for our behavior?
  • Liliom seems to want to confess his mistakes to Julie as he diesIn  the original play, Liliom explains:  Like when you go to a restaurant and you’ve finished eating and it’s time to pay, then you have to count up everything, everything you owe.  How might a deathbed confession be hurtful or helpful?
  • Liliom seems to receive more understanding in the afterlife than he asks for or deserves.  Can we expect less of ourselves when we are struggling?

3. Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935)

VERSION:  Black-&-white, British, starting Conrad Veidt as the Stranger.  Originally a short story by Jerome K. Jerome, then a play, then a 1918 film, followed by this 1935 film (now in public domain, can be streamed online).

MOVIE NOTES:  The berated young maid Stasia cries, “What are we all living for, that’s what I want to know. What’s the good of us?” She yanks open the door to run away and finds a kindly gentleman on the doorstep. “The Stranger” enters the lives of the residents of a London rooming house (taking the humble room on the “third floor back”)  and begins modeling courteous behavior and appreciating the hidden goodness within each person despite their glaring faults.  He gives them a glimpse of happiness and life purpose. Then the one resident who recognizes what is happening, and has perhaps the most to lose, initiates a virtual attack of evil against good, despite the Stranger’s concern for him.   A series of final events leads residents to uncover their true selves.

This movie doesn’t technically mention the afterlife, but is considered an “angel” or “messenger of God” film.  The British accent was difficult for me to understand a few times. but the acting is lively and there is plenty of 1930s British humor (e.g. Mr. Wright is “Mr. Wrong”).

CONVERSATION STARTERS:

  • Despite no mention of God or faith community (as far as I could tell), the movie opens with this statement:  London… wilderness of houses, of which but few are homes. Sheltering within its walls a myriad family that dwells in little faith.  Who do you think the Stranger is meant to represent?
  • When the Stranger says good-bye to Stasia, he indicates that she was the reason he came.  This story may be unique in that Stasia had bemoaned the household as well as her own failings, and thus the Stranger arrived to meet the needs of an entire household.  How much is our individual happiness interrelated with those around us?
  • When we glimpse each resident’s better self, do you think we are seeing who they really can be, who they were meant to be, or who they were before circumstances and temptations (and Mr. Wright) clouded their characters?

4. Scrooge (1935) 

VERSION:  Black-&-white, later colorized. British production with Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge.  Included on the DVD with the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol.

MOVIE NOTES:  The classic portrayal of lessons learned from the afterlife — the ghost of Marley hopes to teach his business partner things he never learned in life.  This version of A Christmas Carol strikes me as the most sincere Scrooge portrayal I’ve watched, with his gradual change (a tear in his eye at one point, a  timid walk into church to join the congregation in song, a remnant of his character hanging on at the end when he plays the practical joke on Cratchit).

The dim scenes can be hard to see in a B&W film and the music is generally cringeworthy, but the acting is far above other 1930s films I’ve watched.  Tiny Tim is cute and the Cratchit family life is lively, envied more than pitied as Scrooge looks on.

CONVERSATION STARTERS:

  • Scrooge initially claims he is entirely logical.  Do you agree with the movie that rational decision-making is not always best?
  • Did Scrooge experience real spirits or was he dreaming?  If he was dreaming, why was he affected so profoundly?
  • The movie portrays themes such as forgiveness, compassion, life choices, generosity, guilt, family, isolation, personal transformation, Christmas, and tradition.  What is the heart of this story for you?

I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
Dickens’ Preface, 1843

5. A Christmas Carol (1938)

VERSION:  Black-&-white, Gene & Kathleen Lockhart (married in real life) play the Cratchits.  The DVD cover looks like it is in color and perhaps a cartoon, but neither is the case.

MOVIE NOTES:  A fairly upbeat option for watching this classic story about learning lessons from the afterlife. The cover seems quite accurate in paraphrasing Dickens to say this is one of the “most pleasant screen hauntings.”  None of the mean or scary lines is especially worrisome, with the one exception of Scrooge briefly pleading with the final spirit.  Tiny Tim and his dad don’t look like they are suffering too very much with their rounded faces.  The emphasis is on the meaning of Christmas and the tone is of Christmas cheer, from carols about the Christ child to enjoying a bottle of liquor.

CONVERSATION STARTERS:

  • Compare the two versions:  Scrooge (1935) and A Christmas Carol (1938).
  • See Scrooge, above, for more talking points.

movies christmas carol

Lots of Versions of Dickens’ Story

One reason folks like me enjoy watching many different versions of A Christmas Carol is the intriguing question:

What new ways will artists come up with to portray the figures that Dickens variously called ghosts, spirits, specters, phantoms, and an apparition?

The question becomes even more of a curiosity when you go back before modern special effects were available.

The ghosts portrayed in the 1935 film:   The ghost of Marley is invisible to us; Christmas Past is mostly a light;  Christmas Present is a rotund, jolly sort; Christmas Yet to Come is an ominous shadow.

The ghosts portrayed in the 1938 film:  Marley looks like a regular guy but he’s see-through and shakes his new-looking chains.  Christmas Past is an angelic young lady with blond curls; Christmas Present appears as a kind of father Christmas figure; Christmas Yet to Come wears the usual shroud, looking as if he works a guillotine.

How does Dickens, himself, describe his ghosts?

Here are the author’s original, imaginative descriptions.

1.  Marley’s Ghost

Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made (for Scrooge observed it closely) of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel. His body was transparent.

2.  The Ghost of Christmas Past

It was a strange figure—like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white; and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.

…the figure itself fluctuated in its distinctness: being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body: of which dissolving parts, no outline would be visible in the dense gloom wherein they melted away. And in the very wonder of this, it would be itself again; distinct and clear as ever.

3.  The Ghost of Christmas Present

It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.

4.  The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand.

A Christmas Carol is an approachable, short novella, popular from the start, and you can read the rest online at free sites including Read.gov (Library of Congress).

Movies can bring out talking points that might not otherwise emerge.

Blog #14, COMMENT BELOW:  Any added conversation points about these five movies?  Any 1930s movies you would add to the list?

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