Program Notes: Between Two Worlds (1944)

Meet Sutton Vane, great-granddaddy of the afterlife drama.

Sutton who?

Sutton Vane, the son of a British acting family who signed up to fight in World War I and was sent home with a severe case of shell shock. As part of his personal therapy Vane wrote a play about a limbo state where the souls of recently deceased individuals await their final judgment.

It was called Outward Bound and it was filmed in 1930 under that title, then remade in 1944 as Between Two Worlds, which updated the story to reflect the Second World War then raging.

When discussing afterlife plays, most people mention No Exit. But Jean-Paul Sartre’s acclaimed existential drama was a riff on ideas developed two decades earlier by Sutton Vance.

Film Screening:
Between Two Worlds (1944)
Saturday, Dec. 10 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Outward Bound / Between Two Worlds set the template for many of the films featured in the Library’s current film series, "Beyond this Vale of Tears: Hollywood visits the Afterlife."

Vane’s play is about seven individuals who find themselves in the lounge of an ocean liner at sea. Though they recollect their individual histories, none can explain why they’re on this boat or how they got there.

The group represent a cross section of British society, among them an Anglican minister, an overinflated politician, a grand dame in the Maggie Smith mold, a lower-class charwoman.

Slowly it dawns on them that they’re all...gasp...dead. A character called the Examiner shows up to decide who’s going to heaven and who to hell.

Vane obviously viewed Outward Bound as much more than a play. Having been driven to the brink of madness by the proximity of death on the battlefield – and having recovered enough to return as an actor in USO-type shows that sometimes were performed while artillery shells fell nearby – Vane had many demons to exorcise.

So when the theatrical establishment rejected his baby, he self-produced it for about $600, personally building and painting the scenery.

The gamble paid off. The production became the hit of the 1923 London season; the next year it opened on Broadway, playing for 144 performances.

Then came the first movie version (its star was Leslie Howard of Gone with the Wind fame) and, much later, a 1938 New York revival than ran for nearly a year.

Between Two Worlds was written for the screen by Daniel Fuchs, whose other screenwriting credits include Panic in the Streets, Storm Warning and Love Me or Leave Me.

The cast was packed with faces familiar to war-time moviegoers: John Garfield as cynical war correspondent Tom Prior, Paul Henreid and Sydney Greenstreet (both fresh from the triumphant Casablanca), Eleanor Parker, Edmund Gwenn (who three years later would achieve screen immortality as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street) and George Coulouris (Citizen Kane).

Fuchs also brought the story up to date, making several of the confused passengers victims of a German bomb that fell on London during an air raid.

And unlike the play, where the characters can only talk about their past lives, the film allowed Fuchs and director Edward A. Blatt to show their stories in flashback.

See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.

Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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