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DVD SAVANT

The Next Voice You Hear...
Warner Archive Collection


The Next Voice You Hear...
Warner Archive Collection
1950 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 83 min. / Street Date December 1, 2009 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 19.95
Starring James Whitmore, Nancy Davis, Gary Gray, Lillian Bronson, Art Smith, Tom D'Andrea, Jeff Corey, Douglas Kennedy.
Cinematography
William Mellor
Film Editor John Dunning
Original Music David Raksin
Written by Charles Schnee from a story by George Sumner Albee
Produced by Dore Schary
Directed by William A. Wellman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The odd but sincere religious parable The Next Voice You Hear... is a strange muddle. It once commanded a respectable following among those complacent optimists pleased by "inspirational" stories in periodicals like Reader's Digest and The Saturday Evening Post.  1 Some quarters now consider it a camp cult item, quite unfairly. George Sumner Albee's source story is an inspirational "what if" concoction. In this case, God talks to the world ... through the radio.

The Next Voice You Hear... was a pet project of Dore Schary, a top MGM executive then engaged in a power struggle with Louis B. Mayer. A booster of "Andy Hardy"- style pictures and glossy escapist musicals, Mayer considered Schary an apostle of creeping ugliness represented by social realism. Schary had made his name with 'hot topic' noirs like Crossfire and the humanist but realistically rugged war film Battleground.

American culture circa 1950 was in the midst of a powerful Christian Fundamentalist revival, one given a boost by the advent of Television. Dore Schary may have been aiming to turn the new Born Agains into dedicated MGM customers, but he also considered The Next Voice You Hear... an artistic-commercial experiment designed to put him in solid with the New York Loew's office and help him gain full control of the studio. Made on a mini-schedule without stars, the movie nevertheless premiered at the Music Hall as a big event, the kind announced with moving titles on a sky background, like Quo Vadis. Schary must have thought he was making the American equivalent of an Italian Neorealist picture, for the story concerns not MGM's usual tuxedoe'd swells but a decidedly middlebrow middle class family. The Smiths own a small house and an old car. The father works in an aircraft plant and the mother is a housewife pregnant with her second child. No false Andy Hardy values are in evidence. The intentions of Dore Schary and the wildcat director William Wellman are good, but MGM's condescending attitude toward 'ordinary people' shows through anyway.

The Next Voice begins with an MGM lion that doesn't make a noise, which may be part of the self-serving "humility" trumpeted in the film's trailer. We meet the Smith family, who live in a suburban Los Angeles tract home. They're humanized with "cute" behavior quirks. Joe American throws tantrums at his jalopy and drives recklessly, which earns him multiple traffic tickets from the neighborhood cop. He gripes delivering papers when his son Johnny (Gary Gray), wakes up sick; and he doesn't get along with his grumpy boss, Fred Brannan (Art Smith), who lives in the same neighborhood.

John's pregnant wife is Mary, a name choice that cinches the religious parable angle. But the family names have been lifted from an early WW2 MGM morale booster called Joe Smith, American, about an engineer kidnapped by Nazi agents and pressured to divulge military secrets. The Next Voice You Hear... has a political dimension as well: this time our Yankee everyman is confronted with God himself.

Mary is out of the room when the first of God's messages is heard over the radio, at 8:30 exactly. Measured against the checkered history of cinematic religious miracles, this one is handled with a little discretion. We never hear God's voice and must instead interpret it through the reactions of the Smith family. Mary Smith wonders if Orson Welles is up to his old tricks and asks Joe if God sounded like MGM star Lionel Barrymore! The authorities eventually decide that the voice is being heard through radios simultaneously all over the world, translated into the language of every auditor. Only atheists and malcontents claim that they can't hear it. The only mention of the Soviet bloc comes in a statement that no information about the broadcasts has been heard from behind the Iron Curtain.

This unavoidable political context puts The Next Voice You Hear... in the same odd science fiction pot as Red Planet Mars (God is alive and well on a neighboring Planet) and The 27th Day, a schizoid passive-aggressive Cold War allegory that ends with an alien force eliminating "the enemies of Freedom"; i.e., all Communists everywhere. MGM's meek little story is benign only on its face. The Select are the pure of heart that respond to God's message. The others, apparently a tiny minority, don't matter.

My objections to this premise knock the technical and cultural aspects, not the idea's sincerity. The notion of God talking to the world on the radio (cue Donna Summer) presumes that everybody has radios; we'd have to surmise that over half of 1950 humanity isn't going to receive the message.  2 Then again, what about the world's religions that conceive of God in a form other than a paternalistic, external entity? This God seems exclusively Judeo-Christian.

When our Bible God speaks, he generally has very important things to say. The movie's pleasant homilies aren't "his" style; and they're also rather "feel-good" to be things Jesus might say, in my opinion. Filmmakers take note: putting words into God's mouth is not a recommended activity. (Insert unnecessary topical political remark here.) God's first message simply says that he'll be talking to us for a few days. The next couple of speeches mark time while waiting for the world's doubters and naysayers to get with the program. After an "international" technical investigation, a radio pundit says, the only possibility seems to be that the next voice we hear is indeed the Voice of God. America listens in dread anticipation for God to announce the End of Time or to tell us to sacrifice cocker spaniels or something. God instead tells us to appreciate the beauty of his creation and the simple things, and to be good to each other. What's the harm in that?

Rather than attack the messages' lack of pithy content -- which verges on Hallmark Card-lite -- let's decide that God's voice itself is the message. This is no ordinary radio announcer, but the Man himself. The souls of the world are moved as one. God's Voice will guide us back onto the better path and remind us that we're all brothers. That's the worthy aim of many artistic works.

Unfortunately, this is where the condescending part comes in. Again, our leading character is identified as "Joe Smith, American", which pretty much lumps together all taxpayers lacking college degrees and executive status ... Norma Desmond's "little people out there in the dark". Joe is played by Schary's discovery James Whitmore, a postwar ex-G.I. everyman type. Whitmore's Joe is a little dense but good hearted. His acting is certainly okay but in trying to be working class, his Joe tends to strike goonish ape-like poses. They seem theatrical and phony. Joe's only visible problems are that he's a rude driver and a grumpy husband. He bears a grudge toward his supervisor at work. He considers himself a sinner because he gets drunk once in a while. The Voice of God doesn't cure any of this, it simply makes Joe pause long enough to adjust his attitude. Any number of personal inspirations could have the same effect, but we fully agree that if most of the world's population were struck the same way the cumulative euphoria might be truly inspiring.

Then again, God's happy little messages seem intended only for Americans like Joe Smith that aren't faced with life-threatening problems on a daily basis. God's advice wouldn't mean much to a majority of the world's citizens, the ones living under intolerable oppression, injustice or inequity. Frankly, this God seems pretty callous. He drops by to dispense a few self-help tips but doesn't stay around long enough to appreciate his creation's sorry state of affairs. It's serious absentee landlord misconduct.

The Next Voice You Hear... is chaptered with portentous day markers -- "Wednesday, the Second Day" -- leading us to watch for rains of toads or fiery swords from on high. This tension sets the film up as a major Shaggy Dog Story ... how can it possibly be resolved? The concluding miracle turns out to be the everyday kind that, God advises, we all need to appreciate more. Okay, that's at least more honest than insulting Bible lessons from Cecil B. De Mille, with special effects to make us Ooh and Ahh. All I can say is that I already feel pretty open to the miracle of existence without a special spiritual guide. Although my childhood Sunday school upbringing certainly played a formative role in my attitude, so did my own interactions with nature and various inspiring secular role models, starting with my parents. Dore Schary's movie wants to be apolitical, but church matters are inherently political in nature. The idea of bliss in The Next Voice You Hear... is full churches. But its fuzzy advice to do small goodnesses pretty much stops at staying sober and not beating up on Aunt Ethel.

Although James Whitmore tends to overplay, William Wellman keeps most of The Next Voice in an interesting minor key. Gary Gray is more subdued than the average movie kid of the time. In supporting roles are future blacklistees Jeff Corey (zero screen credits 1953-1959) and Savant favorite Art Smith. The politically active Smith, a stage veteran and familiar face in socially conscious films noir, was betrayed and denounced by his old friend Elia Kazan. He didn't work for seven years and never got his career going again.

The most interesting performance in the film is that of Nancy Davis, who of course married Ronald Reagan. This has led to this film being labeled as a "camp classic" for folk who like to jeer the future First Lady as she does "naturalistic" things like watch Whitmore chew corn flakes. Bedtime for Bonzo humor went stale ages ago, although Hellcats of the Navy is still a jaw-dropper to see Nancy and Ronnie as a do-or-die Navy couple. In this movie Nancy Davis does very well as a neo-realist housewife. Mary Smith is not too pretty but has a sweet smile. When she cradles her drunken husband in her lap she seems very much like the Holy Virgin. Mary's visibly pregnant in a way then discouraged by the Production Code, which probably allowed the exception to stand because of the film's spiritually sensitive nature.


The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Next Voice You Hear... is a good flat transfer of this B&W film. It looks pretty good considering that it was filmed in less than three weeks. The de-glamorization idea only works so far because the camera setups remain standard coverage as in any other 1950 MGM film. Just the same, the attempt at everyday emotional honesty is somewhat refreshing when compared to the slick stylization of almost all studio filmmaking at the time. Judging by the oil derricks on the hill behind the Smiths' house, I'd say the film was shot in a new subdivision near MGM in Culver City.

This Archive disc has an original trailer comprised of a "this is important" text scroll and a couple of oddly chosen film clips. David Raksin's music says spiritual uplift but the wording avoids a specific message of any kind. Intended to raise curiosity, the trailer was probably immediately forgotten by most audiences. I really, really wonder what this picture played like in the Radio City Music Hall ... could it possibly fill that enormous theater? Would the Rockettes sing hymns as an opener?


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Next Voice You Hear... rates:
Movie: Good but sociologically Fascinating
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 22, 2009

Footnotes:

1. My favorite non-denominational pro-Christian inspirational story from a 60s The Reader's Digest was an account of two Christian tourists in Morocco confronted by a Moroccan thief-murderer while on a midnight beach stroll. The potential lady victim began to pray and held her crucifix, whereupon the Islamic ruffian lowered his weapon and became contrite. Realizing that these foreigners were just as devout as he, the Moroccan begged forgiveness and all parted friends. I read this story several times trying to discern its exact message - and figure out why it offended me.
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2. The Next Voice You Hear... also ignores the existence of television, which feeds into MGM's belief that the new medium might go away if it were just ignored. Actually, a guy like Joe Smith is not the 1950 equivalent of an Early Adopter, and probably prefers to wait until TVs come down a bit in price. But does this mean that the audience watching Milton Berle or the DuMont Network are missing out on God's voice? The movie is vague on this; at one point it says that airplane pilots are hearing the Voice of God over their communications radios.
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3. A note from Savant pal and generous advice resource Dick Dinman, 12.23.09:

Hey Glenn, Probably the most interesting aspect of The Next Voice You Hear... to speculate on would be how this scruffy little 14-day wonder was chosen by the ultra-selective Radio City Music Hall as their July 4th attraction. (It lasted only until the July 21st debut of The Men which also tanked and was replaced by Sunset Blvd. on August 11th.) In those days lower budget MGM quickies with a similar short shooting schedule would be dumped unceremoniously into tiny theaters on New York's East Side and emerge a few weeks later on the second half of a multiple release bill.

So how did this tiny film end up at the cavernous Radio City that had recently turned down contemporary big budget Metro flicks starring the likes of Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Esther Williams, Lana Turner etc.? I think the answer is clear: God was a bigger star. Can you imagine the Metro boys twisting the arms of the Radio City film buyers with "You dare to turn down a picture about God?!?" Even snippily sophisticated reviewers like Bosley Crowther, while acknowledging that "this is not an intellectual film" were cowed into giving it a thumbs up. Only the mighty drawing power of God in his only (involuntary?) participation in the movie business could accomplish the above miracles. Holiday Cheers, Dick Dinman



DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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