The Next Voice You Hear… (1950)

In the movie The Next Voice You Hear…, a mysterious voice interrupts the normal broadcast on the radio, claiming to be God.  This happens in Los Angeles every night at 8:30 for six straight days.  People also hear the voice all over the world in whatever language they speak.  Of course, it is a little more convenient for people in Los Angeles to listen to the broadcast, whereas for people in the other parts of the world, not so much.  Those in London must have had to get their butts out of bed at 4:30 in the morning if they wanted to hear what God had to say.  Those of us watching the movie don’t get to hear what God says at all.  We only hear what others say he said.  In fact, as the movie goes on with these God broadcast, it becomes almost laughable the way they figure out ways to keep us from hearing God’s voice.

The effect that God’s voice on the radio has on people is mainly illustrated by the Smith family.  That would be Joe Smith (James Whitmore), his wife Mary (Nancy Davis), their son Johnny, and Aunt Ethel, who visits occasionally to help out because Mary is about to have a baby.  Of course, “Joe” suggests the name “Joseph,” so I guess we are supposed to see some connection with the parents of Jesus, but I have no idea why.

Family life in the Smith household is a bit irritating, primarily because Joe is bossy and thinks he knows what is best for everyone.  We are supposed to believe they basically all love one another, but watching the way they interact is an overall unpleasant experience.  In fact, Joe is no better when he leaves the house.  He is rude to others on the road, and the way he drives gets him a couple of tickets from a policeman.  At work he always seems to be at odds with the foreman, Fred Brannan (Art Smith).

On the first night that God speaks, Joe is the only one in the family to hear him.  He tells Mary and Johnny about it.  Johnny suggests it might be his friend Eddie Boyle, who has a ham radio.  Maybe he figured out a way to cut in as a prank. Joe says that is ridiculous.  “Would Eddie Boyle’s voice sound like God?”  Johnny answers, “I don’t know.  I never heard God.”  Mary turns to Johnny and says, “That isn’t nice.”

Just before that, Mary had suggested that the voice claiming to be God was part of a mystery contest or maybe an Orson Welles thing, alluding, of course, to that infamous War of the Worlds broadcast that made people believe the Martians had landed.  In other words, it was all right for her to question whether the voice was actually God, but not for Johnny to say, “I never heard God.”  And we do sense there is a difference.  Mary is only questioning whether someone claiming to be God actually is God.  But Johnny’s saying, “I never heard God,” is a little like saying, “I never saw God,” which is just one step removed from saying, “What evidence do we have that there is a God?”  Therefore, it is important for Mom to snuff out little Johnny’s tendency to think critically before it grows into full-fledged atheism.

And that does seem to be what God is worried about.  He is concerned that some people do not believe he exists or that it is really God’s voice they are hearing on the radio.  They want him to perform some miracles as proof.  God says he’ll have to think about that.

This second broadcast begins to make the members of the Smith household fearful.  Johnny even starts worrying about his mother dying while giving birth on account of overhearing Mary talking to Aunt Ethel about the difficulties in having a second child, after which Mary starts crying.  This is an artificial fear, one completely made up for this movie.  Except in special cases where there are complications, a second pregnancy is not more dangerous than the first.  The purpose of this phony danger is to give the Smith family something to be fearful of without making the audience fearful.  No one has ever watched this movie and worried that Mary was going to die.

In addition to that fear, one of the men Joe works with is worried about the miracles that God was talking about.  Johnny accidentally ruins the plug on the radio cord and is afraid to tell his father.  Mary expresses surprise, saying that Johnny was never afraid to tell them about stuff like that before.  Exactly what the connection is supposed to be between all this fear and the voice of God is not made clear.  Maybe it is that people often believe in God because they are afraid, and then they end up being afraid of the very God they turned to on account of their fears.  So, fear is both the cause and the effect of believing in God, the one reinforcing the other.

On the third night, Joe and his family miss the broadcast because of the broken plug, but once the plug is fixed, the radio announcer says they were unable to record the voice.  However, they read a transcript of what God had to say.  God is not only still bothered by all the doubt and skepticism about him, but also all the fear that people are feeling.  Maybe, God muses, people are afraid there will be another forty days and nights of rain.  Minutes later, it starts to rain, accompanied by lightning and thunder.  Johnny says he is afraid, Mary screams, and a fearful Joe tries to reassure them that it is just a coincidence as they huddle in terror.  But it only rains that night, and everyone wakes up relieved to see that God didn’t keep it going for the remaining forty days and thirty-nine nights.

At work, Joe marvels that he didn’t have trouble starting his car that morning, almost suggesting that it is some kind of miracle.  But one of his coworkers tells him that maybe he has been flooding his engine every morning on account of being so uptight, and when he woke up in a good mood that morning, he was easier on the gas and didn’t flood the engine.  Joe has a revelation.  Maybe that’s what God is trying to tell everyone, to just take it easy.

Just as the next night’s broadcast is starting, Mary goes into a false labor, so they miss God.  But the radio announcer reads the transcript later, in which God claims that when he made it rain the previous night, that was a miracle.  In fact, every drop of rain, every snowflake, blade of grass, the sun, the moon, and so forth is a miracle.  Then God enjoins people to perform miracles of their own through understanding, peace, and loving kindness.

Let’s pause here to see what all this is about.  Essentially, the focus of this movie is the discord and anxieties that plague the typical American family, both within, the way they get on one another’s nerves, and without, the way they yell at other people on the road as they drive to work, and the way they grumble about their boss when they are on the job.  You might think God would be telling people to quit fighting wars and to help the starving people of Africa, but this movie is not directed at people in war-torn countries or at people who don’t have enough to eat.  Those people aren’t going to be able to buy movie tickets anyway.  No, this movie is directed at the typical theater patron, the person who lives in a peaceful community where everyone has plenty to eat.  And thus, save for the possibility of death, exemplified by the risk involved when Mary has the baby, all the evils besetting these people are the little frustrations and apprehensions of a domestic life.

Anyway, Aunt Ethel becomes hysterical.  Notwithstanding the benign message from the voice on the radio, she fears the wrath of an angry God bent on punishing all of us sinners.  She says her mother and her sister (i.e., Mary’s grandmother and mother) both died when they had their second baby, and now God will see to it that Mary dies when she goes into labor as well.  Joe becomes angry and starts shaking Aunt Ether violently, causing Mary to start yelling at Joe.

The next morning, with Mary still seething over Joe’s physical abuse of Ethel, Joe leaves the house for some cigarettes.  He walks by Brannan’s house and asks him what he thinks of the voice on the radio.  Brannan says, “People silly enough to believe in God are silly enough to believe God’s talking on the radio.”  Joe tells him he has no right to say that, and Brannan reminds him it’s a free country.  Joe tells Brannan he is a mean, miserable, old man.  Brannan says that Joe is the one who is miserable:  “Posing as a God fearing man.  You’re just hanging around, praying that I’ll die so you can get my job.”  Joe pretty much admits that is true.  Brannan then says that if God wants to answer Joe’s prayers and cause him to die, he can do it right now.  Joe stares at him, almost wondering if a bolt of lightning will strike any minute.  But of course it doesn’t.  Brannan is a typical movie atheist.  Not only is he cynical, but he is grumpy and something of a misanthrope as well.  At the time this movie was made, it was commonly believed that without God, a person would naturally be selfish and mean.

Joe continues on his way to the local bar to get his pack of cigarettes.  When he gets there, he is spotted by his old Navy buddy, Mitch.  Mitch is still a bachelor and is on shore leave with a big wad of cash to spend, in contrast to Joe, who complains that he struggles to make ends meet and that his son Johnny has to have a paper route to buy his own bicycle because Joe can’t afford to buy him one himself.  Mitch is a hedonist.  He tells Joe about all the pleasures of visiting far off places, especially the ones in the tropics.  Unlike Brannan, the grumpy atheist, Mitch is just having too much fun living to worry about God one way or the other.  He laughs at the way people are afraid of living and scared of dying, at the way they are afraid when God speaks to them and they are afraid when he doesn’t.  It’s because they are afraid that they fight with each other.  “As for me,” he says, “I don’t fight with nobody.  I’m just a hundred and ninety-five pounds of true love for my fellow man.”  They sit at a table getting drunk, with Mitch more than happy to pay for all the drinks.  At one point, when he orders another round, a B-girl catches his eye, and he orders a drink for her too, after which she sits down at their table.  She flirts with Joe, but he keeps being rude to her, even though he keeps saying, “No offense.”  Finally, he tells Mitch that he is the voice of evil and that he never wants to see him again, threatening to squash his face if he does.

It might seem a little much for Joe to say that Mitch is the voice of evil and to express his hatred for him.  After all, it is not as though Mitch has ever done anything truly evil, like kill a man or rape a woman.  He’s just a good time Charley who wants to see everyone get drunk and get laid.  But Mitch’s role as someone who is evil is relative to the focus of this movie, which is the ordinary life of middle-class America.  Just as God is mostly addressing his remarks to families dealing with the miseries of domesticity, so too is Mitch, as the Devil’s spokesman, being evil in making Joe discontented with having a family and a boring job.

Joe comes home drunk.  Mary reads him what God said while he was out, something about not doing what he told them, about not creating miracles through love and understanding, much in the way schoolchildren fail to do their homework.  Everyone makes up, even Joe and Aunt Ethel, except for Johnny, who was so upset by what Joe did that he ran away from home.  Joe goes out looking for him and finally finds him at Brannan’s house, where it turns out that Brannan and Johnny have been friends for some time.

It cannot go without mentioning that times have changed.  For a child to have been spending time in an old man’s house without his parents knowing about it would be a matter of concern today.  But no one worried about such things in 1950 when this movie was made.  Anyway, what is strange is that we are now finding out that Brannan is a really nice man.  This contradicts the impression we had of him before as the stereotypical atheist who only cares about himself.  Furthermore, when Joe gets ready to take Johnny home, he says, “God bless you,” to Brannan, who in turn says, “God bless you, Joe.”  This is the movie’s way of saying that Brannan really does believe in God deep in his heart, which is why he is also a nice guy deep down.

As we learned from Ludwig Feuerbach, talking about God is an indirect way of talking about man.  The God on the radio is worried about all the skepticism concerning his existence.  In Feuerbachian terms, this means that the people who made this movie, as well as much of the audience for whom it was intended, were worried about all the doubts concerning God’s existence, which in turn caused them to have doubts as well.  The movie wishes to reassure us that such doubts are not real, that skepticism is just a pose, because there really is no such thing as an atheist.  Therefore, notwithstanding the appearances, everyone really believes in God.

Joe brings Johnny home, the family is all together again, and they all love one another.  Ethel has written down what God said, which is that he is pleased.  Joe even decides to say grace, which has not been a custom in that house for some time.  The next day, everyone is in church to hear the night’s broadcast, but there is only silence.  The preacher turns off the radio, saying that God has spoken for six days straight, and that since this is the seventh day, God is resting.

Interestingly, this seventh day is a Monday.  So, God rests on Monday now?  Did he take an extra day off somewhere along the way since the Creation?  No, of course not.  Making Monday the seventh day is a way of finessing the question as to which religion God belongs to.  In other words, if the seventh day had been Sunday, the implication would have been that Christianity is the true religion; if the seventh day had been on a Saturday, that would have implied that the true religion is Judaism; and while I doubt that anyone was thinking about Muslims at the time, their Day of Prayer, a Sabbath of sorts, falls on a Friday.  On the other hand, the movie begins with a quotation from the Old Testament about how the word of God had not yet been heard, and it ends with a quotation from the New Testament about how the word of God had been heard, so there does seem to be a bias toward Christianity anyway.

Right there in church, Mary goes into labor.  They get her to the hospital, and in the waiting room where Joe and Johnny sit, we see a picture of a stork on the wall, with the words at the bottom saying, “I’ve never lost a father yet.”  That’s an old joke, of course, and its purpose has always been to make light of a father’s worries and concerns about his wife’s pregnancy.  Indeed, we never really did believe that Mary was in danger of dying while giving birth, that bit about the danger of a second pregnancy notwithstanding.

Had this been a different kind of movie, Mary would have died, and we would have heard that her death is a test of our faith or that we just cannot understand the mysterious ways of God.  But the moral of this movie is that middle-class Americans should not be fearful, for there is nothing to be afraid of, which absolutely precluded the death of Mary or her baby.

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