The Next Voice You Hear, Directed by William Wellman

The Next Voice You Hear, Directed by William Wellman
By Ron Falzone

I am the product of twelve years of Catholic education.  This means that I do not take guilt lightly.  At the same time, I love guilty pleasures.  This is especially true when that guilt involves movies about religion.

The postwar years were filled with these.  Most were massive epics like The Ten Commandments, The Robe and Quo Vadis.  These were the kind of movies that seemed to think that the birth of Christianity required an orgy. There was another kind of religious drama at this same time, less heralded but nonetheless prevalent.  These were the stories that might otherwise show up on one of those Sunday afternoon “halo shows” so prevalent in the early years of television.

The most ridiculous of these is, not surprisingly, also the most fascinating.  “Personally produced” by MGM head Dore Schary and directed by the otherwise great William Wellman, 1950’s The Next Voice You Hear is as glutinous and sanctimonious a paean to the power of prayer ever produced in Hollywood.  Ironically, it winds up being a pretty succinct argument for atheism.

James Whitmore and Nancy Davis (later Reagan) play “Mr. and Mrs. Joe Smith, American.”  This is the way they are announced in a title card otherwise filled with clouds and shafts of divine light, and underpinned with blasts of music that Verdi might call “a bit much.”  The Smith, Americans are a depressingly “normal” middle class couple with a tiny suburban home and a typically precocious (read “smartass”) pre-teen son.  Dad works at an aircraft plant and mom takes care of the oatmeal on the stove and the bun in the oven.  They presumably have the same pleasures and disappointments as all the other Mr. and Mrs. Joe Smith, Americans out there.

That is, until God talks to them on the radio.

We will spend our time with this microcosmic couple, but God is, of course, macro.  He is breaking into broadcasts worldwide.  We are not privileged to hear His voice.  We just have to take it on faith that A) He really does talk to everyone in their own language; and B) He has something profoundly enlightening to say.  We assume this latter point is true because after hearing His words everyone’s key light gets a lot brighter.

And this is where it gets weird(er).  Why has God chosen this particular time to interrupt our regularly scheduled lives to talk directly to us?  It seems He’s very disappointed with the human race, and, if you’ve ever been to Catholic school, you know how soul-piercing that word is.

There are two things to note about this.  First, as far as I can tell, there are three really bad sins that require Almighty Intervention:  Getting drunk with a friend, yelling at your aunt, and backing out of the driveway too fast.  This last one must be particularly egregious since we see it three times.  Second, and far more concerning, is the timing.  This story is set in the then-present day of 1950.  Yes, five years after the Holocaust.  Am I a bad person for wanting to ask God why that one wasn’t big enough to bring Him back, but poor driving skills was?  After all, they did have radios in 1945.  I’m sure Jack Benny would have forgiven a little heavenly pre-emption.

This is the kind of movie where our hero, Joe Smith, American, is assumed to be “like everyone else” because he drinks beer in front of the radio, believes whatever he is told, and curses at inanimate objects.  Mrs. Joe Smith, American, fares even worse.  Nothing makes her happier than listening to her “men” crunch their cereal, cleaning the house while wearing heels and being 8 ½ months pregnant without showing the slightest baby bump.  When she gives birth it really does look like a miracle.

OK, so I sound like I’m taking the name of The Next Voice You Hear in vain, but the truth is that I find this movie endlessly riveting.  Nothing is quite so odd as watching Hollywood attempt to come to grips with the Almighty while also trying to appeal to their conception of middle-class ticket-buyers.  I’m not alone in my fascination with this movie.  J. Hoberman’s brilliant book, “An Army of Phantoms,” takes a look at the movie-made America of the 1950’s through the lens of this film.  And even its producer thought it “important” enough to write a book about it called “Case History of a Movie.”

So, watch and enjoy.  Of course, if you don’t then I’ll be disappointed.  Very disappointed.