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William A. Wellman
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William A. Wellman
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"Joe Smith, American" lives in a Los Angeles suburb and works at an aircraft plant. One night Joe hears a voice cut in on a radio program: "This is God. I'll be with you for the next few days." It turns out, everyone in the world listening to any radio heard the same thing. More messages come; some people react positively, others negatively. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
This is apparently one of only three films in which the MGM lion is not shown roaring at the start of the opening credits, probably because of the religious theme of the film. The only other known incidence of a non-roaring lion is Ben-Hur (1959), which also has a religious theme, and Westward the Women (1951). (The studio's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) uses the illustrated lion from the MGM record label at its beginning, not a real lion, and so doesn't count.) See more »
What can you say about a movie that opens by insisting that a guy named Joe Smith is an American. Like maybe we're going to think he's French or maybe Chinese. Actually, the best part of this genuine movie oddity are the parts showing how the Smith's are in fact a typical American family.
For example, note the several amusing little episodes that could be expected from a typical day in 1950's suburbia. Dad (Whitmore) mutters the whole time he's getting not one, but two traffic tickets for wrestling with his balky old car. Or young Johnny's (Gray) perfect pantomime of Dad's all-too-predictable motions starting up that balky car. Or Dad's explaining to bemused neighbors why he's doing junior's paper route and getting it wrong. Now these are the kind of homespun little episodes that Hollywood never had much time for. But here they're both telling and skillfully done. Ditto other telling aspects, such as the locker room byplay at the factory where Dad works. Or Mom's (Davis) wrestling with her very expectant condition.
Now, had the film developed a story around these type episodes, we might have had an amusing little programmer to fill a slow Sunday evening. But this is, after all, 1950, and communism is on the apparent march in Korea, while McCarthyism is aiming at lefty screenwriters in Hollywood. So what we get instead of a programmer is something like Pat Robertson meets The Twilight Zone. After all, when we turned on the radio in those days, we expected maybe the voice of Edward R. Murrow, but certainly notdare it be saidthe voice of The Big Guy Himself. It's as though Robertson had finally arranged it. Wisely, of course, we never hear the actual divine voice, rather the messages are repeated to us by the various characters.
So what we get instead of the usual Hollywood product is a scarcely veiled religious parable. But not an ordinary one. Instead, it's a combination of Creation and The Second Coming all rolled into one b&w movie. And in case we don't get the meaning, Creation is conveyed by the portentious countdown going from The First Day to The Seventh Day, while a Second Coming is signaled by the child born in humble surroundings to Joseph and Mary Smith. At the same time, even Satan puts in a surrogate appearance in the form of Mitch, Joe's wartime buddy, who tempts him with drink and loose women when Joe should be home with wife and family.
So what's the point of this darn heavy load where God actually speaks and the Bible's big events are replicated inof all places1950's suburbia. Looks to me like Hollywood got caught up in the emerging Cold War, so MGM decided to enlist God and the Bible on our side. After all, the struggle is against the godless commies. And what better way to show them who's boss than having The Big Guy Himself put in an appearance.
Now, that Cold War conjecture makes a lot of sense given the time frame. But consider what God's message boils down to according to the movie. It's something like, "Do your homework and be nice to one another". Okay, sure, but who could be against that. I'll bet even the bad old Soviets, or the Humanists, or other assorted skeptics would agree with such a soft message. So why do we need God or MGM's screenwriters to tell us something so obvious.
Well, consider again Hollywood and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet bloc. Now that congressional hearings have exposed so many com-symps in their midst, the industry needs a more patriotic image. So what better way to demonstrate patriotic loyalty than to cozy up to a dominant Christianity that feels threatened by the spread of atheistic Marxism.
But certainly the message can't be done in a way that offends other religions or potential allies. So if God speaks, it's got to be general enough to offend no one. But, at the same time, the message should also reference Christian belief if only in a covert way. Looks to me like the writers met the first challenge with the platitude to be nice to others, and the second with the directive about homework, which in context really means to go back and read the Bible. Maybe that combination seems awkward and a little sophomoric, especially coming from God, but it does solve the script's most urgent problem.
Of course, much of this is conjecture on my part. Nonetheless, the movie's a really weird mix, which encourages some type of explanation.
The film itself is not as bad as I expected. Most importantly, it doesn't overload with smarm, always a risk for religiously themed movies. Wisely too, the screenplay avoids any specific mention of Cold War politics, relying instead on apparent moral rearmament to meet the Soviet challenge. Then too, Whitmore and Davis, along with Gray, make a very ordinary, unHollywood type family, appropriate for the purpose. Also, I can't help noticing head production honcho Dore Schary produced the film and brought prestige director William Wellman on board to direct. This suggests the production was not viewed as just another low-budget b&w.
Okay, so maybe we didn't get the new age the movie's big events portend. Still, the movie's a really strange one-of-a-kind that should be seen if only for curiosity's sake.
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