By Jon Gallagher
Oh, God! (WB, 1977) – Director: Carl Reiner. Writers: Larry Gelbart (s/p). Avery Corman (novel). Cast: George Burns, John Denver, Teri Garr, Donald Pleasence, Ralph Bellamy, William Daniels, Barnard Hughes, Paul Sorvino, Barry Sullivan, Dinah Shore, Jeff Corey, George Furth, David Ogden Stiers, Titos Vandis, & Moosie Drier. Color, Rated PG, 98 minutes.
A few months ago, I “cut the cable,” mainly due to the fact that my cable TV provider seems to think that the way to reward their customers for their loyalty is to raise their prices while cutting their service. In all fairness, they did give me a choice: Pay an extra $15 a month for what I was already getting or lose about 10 channels or a DVR for the same as I was getting now. I surprised them. I chose “none of the above,” went out and bought a set of what we used to call “rabbit ears,” and discovered that I could get 23 channels over the air for free.
Some of these channels include networks not carried by cable TV companies like AntennaTV (imagine that!), the MeTV network, Bounce, and others. Most of the programming is old shows that makes me wonder how we ever managed to get this far in technology while others reminded me of how good TV once was with actual writers and scripts rather than people making fools out of themselves in the name of “reality TV.”
Oh, wait. This is supposed to be a movie review, not an editorial. Sorry about that. I just needed to get you up to date on why this particular movie was reviewed. One of the over the air channels that I now receive carries an old show from the 1950s, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, starring the immortal husband and wife comedy team that made the transitions all the way from vaudeville to radio to TV. George was in his 50s during the TV run which lasted from 1950 to 1958.
I don’t remember the TV show. I was only a year old when it went off the air. But I do remember that he also starred in a couple movies, just about the time I was going to college. He was in his 80s when he won an Oscar for his role in The Sunshine Boys and he was cast opposite John Denver in Oh, God!, playing the title character. I remembered the latter and began digging for a source on which to watch it.
I found it on Amazon.
John Denver was a pop/country music star with a string of hit songs including “Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy,” who was trying his hand at acting as his music career was on the decline. It was a novel, if not somewhat risky, pairing, but producers were counting on the chemistry that Burns seemed to have with all of his costars to carry the film.
Denver was cast as Jerry Landers, a perfectly ordinary guy who led a boring life as the assistant manager of a grocery store. He gets a letter inviting him to an interview the next day and it’s signed simply, “God.” Figuring it’s a joke, he tosses it into a bedside wastebasket only to have it pop back up in the middle of the night and again the next day while at the store.
With curiosity getting the better of him, Jerry goes to the interview where God tells him that He wants Jerry to be his messenger and tell the world that everything is going to be okay. At first, all we hear is God’s voice: Burns’ trademarked grandfatherly gravelly growl which Jerry dismisses as a practical joke of some sort. When God finally appears in the flesh to Jerry, the Almighty turns out to be the octogenarian Burns who somehow gets through the entire movie without his iconic cigar.
God manages to lead Jerry along, convincing him little by little that this is no joke and that Jerry was picked at random to spread the gospel. Of course, the world around Jerry reacts as it would to anyone who claimed to have a personal visit from the Almighty – they laugh at him and criticize him, going as far as to put him on Dinah Shore’s talk show with a police sketch artist so the world can see what God looks like.
The movie culminates with an evangelist (Sorvino) suing Jerry for defamation of character (God had told Jerry that the guy was a phony) and God showing up in court to testify on Jerry’s behalf which leads to a classic scene:
Bailiff: Do you swear to tell the truth and nothing but the truth?
God: So help me, Me.
Judge: So help you, you?
God: If it pleases the court, and even if it doesn’t, I’m God, your honor.
All in all, it’s a charming movie with no heavy-handedness on the religious aspects. Although God is involved, it doesn’t continually bash us over the head with theology, but rather poses questions for us to answer on our own through the interaction of the characters. Denver and Burns do share a chemistry that is enjoyable to watch and it’s obvious that the seasoned Burns is leading Denver through his maiden voyage in movies, making him even perhaps better than he already is. The singer/songwriter, who leaves his guitar in the wings with Burns’ cigar, comes off as being very natural and engaging, the type of guy that would be fun to work with or be around in the real world. Burns is also a natural playing the old guy part, seemingly with an answer to everything, but then who wouldn’t when you’re God?
Add this to the fact that you get to watch Teri Garr, who plays Jerry's wife, and you just can’t complain at all.
I re-watched the movie with my 32-year-old daughter, and her two preteen kids. Although they weren’t impressed with the movie, it didn’t insult their intelligence and they did ask quite a few questions about those things that looked sort of like cash registers at the supermarket where Jerry worked as well as that push button radio in Jerry’s car.
Had the movie been written in our current day and age, there would have been more than enough people out there to be offended by something in it, but those are people who spend their entire day just looking, hoping, and praying to find something that they can claim offends them.
It’s a delightful movie, and leaves us with a genuinely good feeling (not a fake-good). It’s an easy A- which could only have been better if they’d let John sing the title song (of which there wasn’t one).
If you get the chance to find this at the local video store, or local library, you might want to check it out. There are certainly worse ways to spend 98 minutes.