Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Oh, God!

The early 70's movie Oh, God! with John Denver, George Burns, and Teri Garr, came up in conversation around the household recently, so I had the library borrow us a copy. While I was at it, thought I'd read the novel, too.

The movie is dated, natch, as are most "popular entertainments" of their age. It's actually a rare occurrence for a movie to remain timeless like Philadelphia Story and Wizard of Oz have (just for instance - those aren't the only ones, of course).

What I hadn't noticed back in 1977 was that the theology - such as it is - is essentially secular Judaism with a dash of 60s-esque "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke and Teach It Harmony" non-denominational-spirituality-by-way-of-Deism liberally sprinkled on top. Or the dreaded "many paths up the mountain", if you will. (Or, to be more precise, it's Avery Corman's fictional God - the kind of God that fundamentalist atheists request you describe so they can gleefully detail how wrong you are because it is easy to yank the rug out from under a finite God.)

But if you can get past the score (which is minimal by design, thank God (har har) - and Carl Reiner points out in the commentary that not having music continually under the scene was rare at the time) and Teri Garr's outfits, and the creaky theology, it's still a congenial little bon-bon of a movie.

A pleasant surprise is how decent an actor John Denver was. I never once winced and was often quite impressed how he convincingly conveyed amazement and dismay at the developments. Of course Teri Garr and George Burns are excellent; they're actors in the first place. This was Denver's only role, and that must've been his choice because he certainly had the chops.

The book, by Avery Corman, differs from the movie in that main character, Jerry, is not a grocery store assistant manager but a free-lance journalist who's contacted by God because He liked the article Jerry wrote about the Rolling Stones. Also, the trial is not about his slandering a southern televangelist, but a hearing to get Jerry released from the psych. ward.

The biggest change, though, is after the trial. The world religious readers who had God answer their 50 questions hold an international summit to decide if it was really God who contacted Jerry or not. They decide it wasn't and hold a big party afterwards to celebrate. Jerry leaves the conference and joins God outside (disguised as a hotdog vendor) to give Him the verdict, and of course being God He already knows, and just sits there dejectedly and shrugs - a much more somber note than is ever struck in the movie.

Larry Gelbart of TV M.A.S.H fame did a great adaptation of the novel, though, and even got nominated for an Oscar. It would've been difficult to not turn the movie into something else had that set piece been included, so its exclusion was wise.

Anyone looking for a cute movie to watch with the family - assuming you're not allergic to the idea of God and don't agree with Sam Harris that those of us who aren't should be lead to the gallows before we destroy the world - this is a nice alternative to yet another animated film. My eldest daughter really dug it, and it prompted some good questions.

The book is out of print, btw.


Anonymous said...

Re: John Denver's acting chops:

I last watched Oh God when I was a kid and can't really judge how John Denver performed in it. Maybe I should watch it again now. But I can verify that Denver did appear in at least one other film: Foxfire. No, not Firefox, that creaky Cold War film with Clint Eastwood. This was Foxfire, a TV movie by Hallmark Films - yes, the greeting card company actually made a few films - and his perfomance there made me wince repeatedly. Well, in his defense, everything about that film made me wince. It was, in a nutshell, exactly the sort of insipid schlock you would expect from Hallmark. But nothing about Denver's performance rose above the rest of the production, so I'm surprised to hear that he did well somewhere else.

Yahmdallah said...

Maybe youth and a good script (and possibly a good director) helped Denver back in the day. I've not seen "firefox" nor do I think I could. After "Cocoon" we had to sustain a short trend in films featuring cute octogenarians, and that was one of them.

Now, I have nothing against octogenarians, and they can be charming, but only when they're being themselves and not when they're being romanticized and given lines that even Corey Haim would choke on.

Danielk said...

The genius of John Denver was his ability to make corny ideas palatable. Remember THANK GOD I'M A COUNTRY BOY? There is not a producer in the world who wouldn't has added some country-bear-jamboree-style instrumental backing to that. But John released it acapella. And it worked.
Does this count as a fourth level digression?