George Burns was one of the great legends of show business. He was a bone fide superstar during a career spanning an amazing eight-and-a-half decades! He and his wife, Gracie Allen, were vaudeville stars when Rudolph Valentino came and went. They were radio stars in the thirties and forties and television stars in the fifties. When his wife died, people thought George would retire, but no such thing. He continued his stage act alone, proving he was more than a straight man for Gracie; he was a very funny fellow in his own right, with impeccable comic timing. Then came his final triumph, motion pictures. Yes, he and his wife had done a few films together in the old days, but they were nothing special. That changed in 1975 with "The Sunshine Boys," and George was on his way back to the top.
"Oh, God!" capped Burns's career in 1977, the film's popularity spawning two sequels and several more movie deals. He was ninety-two years old when he made his final lead appearance in a motion picture, "18 Again!" in 1988. He may have been at that time the oldest, full-time working movie star in the history of cinema.
Costar John Denver was another story altogether. He was, of course, primarily a singer, and "Oh, God!" was one of only a couple of theatrical, non-TV films he ever done. He had made it big in the sixties when he was chosen from a multitude of applicants for the vacant spot left by Chad Mitchell when the founder of the Chad Mitchell Trio folksinging group decided to go it alone. After the Mitchell Trio finally broke up, his career was dicey until he struck it big with a whole string of hit country-folk tunes, eventually turning his name into a household word. "Oh, God!" may have been the high-water mark for this most personable, all-American boy.
Naturally, Burns plays God and Denver plays the ordinary guy God chooses to spread his Word. Together they make a delightful team, each perfectly typecast for the part. Burns is certainly not what everybody might expect in the way of God, a little old man in tennis shoes and a fishing cap, but as he tells Denver's character, it's the easiest form he could take and be accepted and understood. Coming to Earth looking like Laurence Olivier as Zeus might have been a bit too awesome. Anyway, Burns is everything we could hope for in a benevolent God--a kindly, reassuring voice; a sympathetic smile; a modest, unassuming manner; everyone's favorite uncle. Denver, too, is everything we could hope for in an innocent Everyman--honest, trusting, humble; the boy next door. He's Jerry Landers, an assistant grocery store manager in Tarzana, California. God tells him he chose him because he was average, a little better than most, not as good as others. That may have been an understatement; Denver's character is almost unbelievably, scrupulously forthright and not a little naive. He is, in short, a good man.
God's first job is to persuade Jerry that He's real, which is no simple matter. Jerry thinks the whole thing is a put-on set up by a friend. But when God appears to him and performs a few minor miracles, Jerry is convinced. God's second job is to persuade Jerry to help Him bring back people's faith in Him. "Trust me," says God, "like it says on the money."
No easy task, either, telling people you've seen God. Everybody thinks Jerry's nuts, including his wife and kids. When God tells him that people are on their own, and Jerry complains, "We need help," God responds, "That's why I gave you each other." The film is filled with gentle little homilies like this, which may at first glance seem facile or superficial but upon reflection are both entertaining and instructive. Jerry's mission is to tell people that "God has appeared on Earth to reaffirm that He lives, and that our world can work. It's up to us." Before long, he's on TV news and even appears as a guest on Dinah Shore's old talk show. When his wife grumbles, "I don't want the kids on TV," Jerry retorts, "Can't be any worse than watching it."
Poor Jerry; nobody believes him. Even prophets have a hard time. "I'm liable to lose my job," Jerry tells God. "Lose a job, save a world," replies God. "Not a bad deal." The movie culminates in a trial, much as "The Miracle on 34th Street" did with Santa Claus. And like that old charmer, "Oh, God!" has you leaving the film feeling good. "If you find it hard to believe in me," says God, "maybe it would help you to know that I believe in you."
The movie is based on a novel by Avery Corman ("Kramer vs. Kramer"), with a screenplay by Larry Gelbart (the Sid Caeser TV shows, "The Wrong Box," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the "M*A*S*H" TV series, "Tootsie"), and directed by Carl Reiner (the Sid Caesar TV shows, "Where's Poppa," "The Jerk," "The Man With Two Brains"). Teri Garr plays Bobbie Landers, Jerry's ever-patient wife. Coincidentally, Garr made "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" the same year, in that movie also playing a disbelieving wife. The difference is that here she remains loyal instead of being the whining nag who packs up the kids and leaves. Donald Pleasance has a small part as Dr. Harmon, part of a team of clergymen of various faiths who attempt to determine Jerry's motives by putting him to a test. Turns out, the only test is a test of faith, which almost everyone except Jerry fails. Paul Sorvino plays the Rev. Willie Williams, a phony evangelist; Barry Sullivan plays Bishop Riordan, a Catholic priest; Jeff Corey plays Mr. Silverstone, a Jewish rabbi; David Ogden Stiers plays Mr. McCarthy, a stiff-necked district produce manager; George Furth plays Briggs, the religous editor of the "L.A. Times"; William Daniels plays George Summers, Jerry's big boss; Bernard Hughes plays Judge Baker, who presides over the climactic trial; and Ralph Belamy came out of retirement to play Sam Raven, an attorney. With a cast like this, who couldn't make a good movie?
If there is a weakness some people will see, however, it's that the film never risks going too far. It may not seem quite outrageous or daring enough for some of today's viewers, its downfall playing it too safe. "Oh, God!" is the sort of gentle, old-fashioned movie that might have found favor in the 1940s or 50s. That it worked so well in 1977 and still holds up so well today is a tribute to its universal themes and agreeable characters. Indeed, when Burns is on screen, which isn't nearly long enough, the whole motion picture lights up. He's a complete delight. Denver's fine, too, but his role is mainly to suffer the slings and arrows of ridicule. As I said, it's a test of faith.
There's nothing particularly special about the disc's video quality. It does its job, no more. The screen size closely matches its original exhibition size at 1.74:1, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The picture is slightly grainy and occasionally shows signs of age with minor flecks and specks. Colors are deep and vivid and fairly bright, but facial tones are sometimes a bit dark, at times making people's faces look a tad purplish. Definition is average, and closely spaced horizontal lines like Venetian blinds tend sometimes to flutter.
The sound, too, is average, a Dolby Digital monaural signal. It's limited in its dynamic range and frequency response, but it has the virtue of clarity and quietness, which are all that are needed to convey the film's dialogue. Since there is little except dialogue in the soundtrack, the audio serves its purpose well.
I don't usually spend more than a few minutes with the audio commentaries that come with most DVDs. In the first place, I haven't the time; in the second place, most of them are not worth the bother. In this case, however, I found myself caught up in the reminiscences of director Carl Reiner, star Teri Garr, and screenwriter Larry Gelbart. They are three old pros with a wealth of show business knowledge and the wit and warmth to convey that knowledge entertainingly. Among the many things I didn't know before hearing them speak is that initially the filmmakers had wanted Mel Brooks to play God and Woody Allen to play Jerry. Both actors declined. Oh, well, as magical as that original casting might have been (or could still be), what we have is plenty good enough. The disc lists the producer, Jerry Weintraub, as a contributor to this commentary also, but if he was in there, I missed him completely. Maybe he sneaked in and out somewhere in the middle while I was up getting a drink. Other than the commentary track, there aren't many other bonuses. There are twenty-four scene selections, a brief cast listing, widescreen theatrical trailers for all three "Oh, God!" films, an English language track, and English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles. It isn't much, but, as I said, the commentary is worth more than a dozen hyped-up documentary promos.
God in the movie is not associated with any particular religion, despite the fact that most of its filmmakers are Jewish. God says in the film that he is the father of all religions and, basically, a member of none. When Jerry protests that "I don't belong to any church," God responds with "Neither do I." It's part of what makes the film so appealing to audiences of all stripes--religious, agnostic, or atheist. The film's message of love and humanity and getting along with one another transcends religious boundaries, as, needless to say, does humor. A good laugh is a good laugh, no matter what one's religion, race, nationality, age, or gender.
I liked "Oh, God!" a lot, and I was a little sorry to see its two sequels not living up to the original. Burns is in both of them, but maybe without Reiner piloting the course or Denver co-starring, things just weren't the same. Or maybe the filmmakers just tried to squeeze too much out of a good thing. "Oh, God!" works because it's a simple, cute, harmless, uplifting idea, a sweet little morality play that needs no further explanation or elaboration. Take it for what it is and enjoy.