Jerry Landers (John Denver) : "If you wanted to see me, why didn't you just appear over my bed?"
God (George Burns) : "Ah, Hollywood. Next question."
The film forums were flowing with tributes to the 30th anniversary of STAR WARS last summer but I think another little movie released that same year should get a shout-out. I’m talking about OH, GOD! – the Carl Reiner directed comedy that had God come to Earth in the form of a wise-cracking smug smiling George Burns. He appears to John Denver, of all people, in Denver's only cinematic acting role and asks him to give his message of hope to the world. Wackiness doesn't ensue like in lesser broader comedies (BRUCE ALMIGHTY - I'm looking in your direction) - no, a measured witty thoughtful tone carries Denver's supermarket manager everyman character through the motions of his doubting wife (Teri Garr), his stern unforgiving bosses, and the scolding from the entire religious community that result.
Released on October 7th, 1977 to good box office and much critical acclaim, OH, GOD! is still not really considered a classic these days. It's not on the American Film Institute's 100 greatest movies list and it only gets a IMDb user rating of 6.2/10 but its Critics Tomatometer 82% approval rating shows there are a lot of fans out there. So, since I'm one of the film's biggest fans I thought it would be fun to celebrate the 30 year anniversary and honor OH, GOD! so here are :
10 Reasons the 30th Anniversary of OH, GOD! Should Be Celebrated
1. George Burns (1896-1996) As God – On the DVD commentary (recorded in 2002) Carl Reiner says "somebody came to me and said 'how about George Burns for God?' and I said 'who else?'" Despite this comment reportedly Mel Brooks was asked first to take the role but as Reiner joked Brooks didn't want to take the demotion. Burns brings a crafty confident component to his portrayal of the grand deity and nails every line. Especially when he takes the stand at the concluding trial scene - "I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me me."
2. John Denver (1943-1997) - As Brooks was originally considered for God, Woody Allen was the first choice to play Jerry Landers - the grocery store manager chosen to spread God's word. Allen turned the part down because he had his own take on God and that wasn't it as the story goes. So they went to a top 40 folk singer who had never acted before - good ol' boy John Denver. Not sure how they arrived there but I'm glad they did because Denver had the chops and plays no false notes here. His exasperating defenses to the skeptical ones around him - "I'm not some kind of nut!" and tense talks/fights with his wife Bobbi (Teri Garr) all show a range though not polished was still perfect for this project.
3. Teri Garr - As the disbelieving worried wife - a role she would perfect in her next film CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND Garr holds her own here. She recounts on the commentary - "around the time of this movie I also made CLOSE ENCOUNTERS... and I remember I used to do interviews and I'd say I just did 2 movies - one in which God is revealed as a cabdriver and one in which God is revealed as a chandelier!" Incidentally Barbara Harris was the original choice - glad they went with Garr.
4. Paul Sorvino - Way before he was an established powerhouse actor in such pivotal films as GOODFELLAS and NIXON, Sorvino had done little besides TV series work and bit parts in a few movies but when he took on the part of Reverend Willie Williams people started to take notice. Williams is a popular evangelist described as "God's personal quarterback" who draws the real God Burn's scorn. God considers him a phony and instructs Denver to tell him so. The Shrine Auditorium sermon that Denver interrupts to bring him that message is show-stopping largely due to Sorvino's invigorated scenery chewing.
5. Great If Largely Unused Supporting Cast - From William Daniels (Benjamin's father in THE GRADUATE, the voice of K.I.T.T. on TV's Knight Rider) to David Ogden Stiers (Major Winchester on M*A*S*H - the TV series) and Ralph Bellemy as Williams' lawyer every part is extremely well cast. Unfortunately a lot of performances appear to have been cut - Donald Pleasance (Blofeld in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, the President in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK among other mostly villainous roles) is given very little screen time and has only one or 2 lines. A montage during the trial sequence indicates there was a lot more material but until a special edition DVD comes along we'll just have to make do.
6. Great Story - Adapted from the book by Avery Corman (who also wrote the original novel of Kramer Vs. Kramer) by Larry Gelbert (M*A*S*H, TOOTSIE) the premise is sound and well plotted out even though it follows a formulaic path it's one well worth taking. Even the courtroom showdown ending which was well worn by '77 comes across as fresh and necessary.
7. Great One-liners - Of course if you've got George Burns you would expect an arsenal of Vaudevillian one-liners and Gelbert's Oscar nominated screenplay doesn't leave him unarmed. Some examples - "The last miracle I did was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea" and this literary gem "you know Voltaire may have had me pegged right? He said I was a comedian playing to an audience who's afraid to laugh."
8. Minor Miracles - As the before mentioned rip-off - sorry, uh...homage BRUCE ALMIGHTY and especially its lame sequel EVAN ALMIGHTY (with a budget of approximately $140 million - the most expensive comedy movie ever made) prove with their extensive use of CGI - money doesn't equal funny. OH, GOD! shows this by giving us a God who bemoans special effects and considers major miracles beneath him and his message. When a still skeptical Denver insists on a sign to fully convince him - God makes it suddenly rain. The thing is - he only makes it rain in Denver's car. He gets pulled over and tells the cop that he must have gone through a car wash with the windows open. The cop (John Ashton - talk about casting) buys it in a stormtroopers buying Luke by way of Obi Wan's Force tricks way. The only other miracles that our Lord Burns perform is a vanishing card trick and disappearing himself by way of cheap editing in his final court appeal. Those work fine so why bother with big-time spectacle that never really pays off?
9. The Carl Reiner Cameo - Sure, it's not in the league of director doing a cameo in their own film as say Hitchcock but Reiner's appearance alongside Denver on The Dinah Shore show is still good stuff. As further Reiner self referencing goes - on a hotel room television set an episode of the Reiner created The Dick Van Dyke Show plays. God - this time dressed as a bus boy turns off the TV and remarks "so many repeats."
10. A Sincere Positive Message - Yes, shut your mouth you cinematic cynics - it's true, this film has a good solid message that believers and non-believers can embrace - that our world can work and it's up to us. Best said by God himself: "you can love, cherish and nurture each other or you can kill each other."
Okay! So put it in your Netflix queue and honor thy OH, GOD! with me - won't you?
I've got to at least mention the sequels as inessential as they are. It has been a while since I've seen them but the 2002 DVD of OH, GOD! has trailers for them and they trigger my memory. The thing that has always bothered me about making a sequel to this film is simply this - Burns tells Denver when he first appears - "I picked a look you could understand. For somebody else I would've looked different." The sequels - OH, GOD! BOOK II (Dir. Gilbert Cates, 1980) and OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL (Dir. Paul Bogart, 1984) ignore this and just settle on God being George Burns. BOOK II pretty much repeats the same story as the first substituting a little girl (Tracy Richards) for Denver for extra cheesy results but at least OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL attempts a new premise - Burns plays the Devil as well and pulls off some amusing moments. Still, neither needs celebratory re-appraising - that's for sure.
Then there's the remake tentatively scheduled for 2008. According to my trusty Wikipedia source "there is currently a remake starring Ellen DeGeneres planned, which was confirmed by DeGeneres in a Time magazine interview." It even has an IMDb page and original producer Jerry Weintraub is involved but it looks like no progress has been made since it has been announced and I hope it stays that way. Hey, I like Ellen but this is a bad idea and I'm not alone in that thinking - this John Denver tribute page has a petition you can sign to stop it. I just signed it - hope you do too.