Monday, May 8, 2017

MOVIE OF THE DAY: "THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR..." (1950)

It seems that God wasn't too keen on current events in 1950, what with the world seemingly being run over by Communism, secularism, atheism, and Milton Berle. The only way He could get our attention was to make an nightly appearance on the world's radio stations at 8:30 PM (Pacific Time), and give everybody a stern but loving talking-to.

This of course begs the question: If God is powerful enough to speak to everybody on radio in their own languages simultaneously, why didn't He appear on TV, too?

A movie ripe for a remake by the producers of today's low-budget Christian-themed melodramas (replacing the internet for radio, naturally), The Next Voice You Hear... perhaps single-handedly ushered in the post-war, religious, "family values" American status quo before the phrase was even coined.

And just to make sure that everyone in the audience could identify with the people onscreen, the lead character is identified in the opening credits as "Joe Smith, American." That's the kind of subtlety equal only to, well, the concept of God hijacking the world's airwaves every night for a week.


Are you sure his name isn't Trump?
Still, I'm a sucker for an interesting, old "what-if" movie, and The Next Voice You Hear... fills the bill quite nicely. Its big stunt -- other than the story -- is that  we never hear God's voice. Every time He horns in, either the camera cuts away or Joe tunes in too late, and has to depend on a transcript read by a radio announcer (one of whom is a pre-Brinkley Chet Huntley).

In fact, the first and only time Joe actually hears the voice, Mary, out of earshot in another room, suggests that it's just another Orson Welles practical joke. (You can picture Welles hearing that line and thinking, I've made Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, The Third Man and Macbeth, and all they remember is War of the Worlds!)


Joe finds it difficult to describe the voice itself, prompting Mary to ask, "Did it sound like Lionel Barrymore?", which is either the unintentionally funniest line in the movie, or proof of the high regard in which MGM held its longest-lasting contract player. Although I'm not sure that God would be flattered about being compared to an alcoholic, drug-addicted, over-the-top character actor.






The Smiths are terrified by the thought
of rain in L.A.
God isn't keen, either, having to prove that He is who He is, preferring instead that people perform their own minor miracles like, you know, loving each other, and observing the cool stuff they already have, like running water, flowers, and the newly-invented Super Glue. But just to show He still has a few tricks up His sleeve, He makes it rain around the world immediately after the third broadcast. That old gag!

The next day, however, skies are clear and bright. For the first time, Joe is able to start his car without having to fiddle with the carburetor. Was it the work of God? If so, then God's priorities are seriously out of whack.

Yet this free tune-up isn't enough to make Joe walk the straight and narrow. In fact, the entire family reacts with fear. Joe gets drunk and has a near-run-in with a hooker; Mary's crazy aunt throws a fit; their son Johnny runs away. In other words, your typical American family even without God yakking to them every night.

Coming out of his stupor, Joe realizes that
he actually had sex with a woman in a
quilted housecoat.

But having learned his lesson (presumably Stop after the fourth shot of Old Overholt), Joe packs up his family and goes to the neighborhood church, where a radio has been hooked-up in anticipation for the seventh messianic monologue. What none of these holy-rollers remembered is that God traditionally kicks up His feet on the seventh day. The message is clear: Now will you people take care of yourselves for a change so I can get some rest?

Nancy Davis gets her hair
done onset by a rabid
Democrat.

Even if you're willing to roll with The Next Voice You Hear..., there are minor distractions. For one thing, James Whitmore (Joe) looks like Spencer Tracy, while Mary is played by future First Lady/astrology fan Nancy Davis. Similar to Lou Gehrig's starring role in Rawhide, all you can think is, What the hell is Nancy Reagan doing up there? (And if Peter Lawford's opinion of her talent regarding a certain sexual act is to be believed, you'll wonder what she's doing in an explicitly spiritual movie like this.) 

Oh, and the pregnant Mary is supposed to be a week away from having a baby, but doesn't look nine days pregnant. Even stranger: Whitmore and Davis were both in their late 20s, but look a decade older. While it really doesn't affect Whitmore, Davis is also condemned with some of the ugliest clothes and hairstyle choices ever committed to celluloid. (By the '50s, studios seemed to equate fashion with sin.) If God really wanted to make Himself known, He should've stopped off at the studio wardrobe and make-up departments.

"Yo! What are you people down there
looking at anyway?"
Maybe all this was MGM's way of maintaining a certain solemnity for the movie. The cast must have needed a week of massages from all the time they spent looking up with deep reverence. Heck, Leo the lion is too pious to even meow at the beginning of the credits.

In other words, the more cynical 21st-century movie fans are likely to snort their way through The Next Voice You Hear... rather than accept it as a message of its time meant to reassure an overwhelmingly faith-based nation when nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed a likely possibility.

Now all we have to contend with is a nuclear war with North Korea. And an attack from ISIS. And homegrown terrorists wreaking havoc at any time. I think I'll tune into the radio tonight around, oh, 8:30. I really hope to hear someone who sounds like Lionel Barrymore.

And as for why God didn't speak on TV in The Next Voice You Hear... -- at the time, the medium was still considered the enemy of the movie industry, and was rarely shown onscreen. Which proves that Louis B. Mayer was indeed more powerful than God.
    
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