Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Next Voice You Hear...

The Next Voice You Hear... (William A. Wellman, 1950) Leo, the M-G-M lion doesn't roar in The Next Voice You Hear... probably so as not to offend any Christians with Roman Coliseum associations that might produce a "thumbs down."  But, that's not the oddest thing in a picture steeple full with them.  The wildest thing is to see William "Wild Bill" Wellman's name as director—maybe he's atoning for all those gangster pictures he did in the '30's—associated with its theme.  On a Tuesday, at 8:30 in the evening when Mary Smith ("American," as she's identified in the credits, and as well she should be as she's played by Nancy Davis, soon to be Nancy Reagan) is helping son Johnny (Gary Gray) with his long division, and Dad Joe ("American," played by James Whitmore) having finished doing the dishes for his pregnant wife after a typical pot-roast dinner, and settled down with a beer and his paper, that something peculiar happens on the radio.

Not that we get to hear it.  God speaks on the radio.  "This is the voice of God.  I'll be with you for the next five days."  Joe, a bit stumped, walks in to tell his family, and the first thing out of mother Mary's mouth is "Was it one of those Orson Welles things?"

Funny.  Joe thinks a local kid is pulling a stunt with a ham-radio kit, but a phone call reveals that another neighbor heard the same voice interrupting another program on another station.  "Did it sound like Lionel Barrymore?" asks Mary, out of the blue.  After the first night, Joe's pals at the Ajax Aeronautics factory have their own speculations "It's mass-psycho-orology. Only fat-heads are gonna fall for a gag like that!"

But, the next night, God shows up again.  The stations try to record it, but nothing shows up on the electrical transcriptions.  More people are hearing it, and it's determined that it's a global phenomenon.  And people are starting to seriously freak out.  Before the week is over, Joe "American" is going to go on a major bender, when all he wanted to do is buy a pack of smokes, and the resulting loss of stability splinters his family.

Not that he was any too stable to begin with.  What keeps The Next Voice You Hear from sinking into a sermon swamp is the casting of Whitmore and, yes, even Davis as the American couple.  Whitmore is no leading man material, but is a facile actor who pulls off charming even when he's a bit of a louse.  Here, he's impatient to a fault, perpetually late for work, flinty with co-workers, disparaging of supervisors, and even he and the wife do a little sniping back and forth at each other.  There's one sequence where son Johnny, so used to Dad's frustrating ritual of resuscitating a faltering car engine, mimes it for Mom split-seconds before the sound effects of the effort come clanking through the door.  It's not dysfunctional to any degree, but it is refreshingly a couple notches below "Father Knows Best."

Credit screenwriter Charles Schnee and Wellman for daring to throw a little real conflict (and a healthy dose of irony) into the thing to keep audiences out of a diabetic coma, and to make it as palatably earnest as one of Norman Corwin's inspirational radio-plays.  

And should one get all-blustery and harumph about the overt religious message, one should bear in mind that the next year The Day the Earth Stood Still would cloak the homilies in the shiny jump-suits of science-fiction.

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