Tuesday, October 1, 2019 at 7pm
William A. Wellman's The Next Voice You Hear + A New Beginning

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Introduced by J. Hoberman

A New Beginning, Reagan Presidential Campaign, 1984, digital projection, 18 mins
The Next Voice You Hear, William A. Wellman, 1950, 16mm, 83 mins

As much a symptom as a movie, The Next Voice You Hear was a major influence on my “Found Illusions” trilogy (An Army of Phantoms, The Dream Life, and Make My Day). It is a study in terror, so terrified it doesn’t recognize itself.

The movie appeared during a moment of crisis for Hollywood and the nation. Both had recently lost significant monopolies—the movie studios compelled to divest themselves of their theater chains, the U.S. no longer the world’s sole nuclear power. Both were under siege—whether by television or communism—and both were under investigation for internal subversion.

The Next Voice You Hear, which I discovered on television, Christmas Day 1973, practices a unique form of direct address. Its premise is so simple as to be nearly elegant and so cosmic as to appear certifiably insane: For six consecutive nights, the Creator of the Universe commandeers the radio waves to address the American people. However, God’s audience is essentially reduced to a single family living in a modest home in suburban Los Angeles. Joe Smith (James Whitmore) is a mechanic in the Ajax Aircraft Plant; his pregnant wife Mary (Nancy Davis, later Reagan) is a gracious, super-nurturing mother to their ten-year-old son Johnny (Gary Gray, prepping to play opposite Lassie). Initially, the movie is an unfunny situation comedy, with Joe as at once compliant wage-slave and household tyrant. He bosses his family and chafes under authority (defined as “everybody telling you what to do”), resenting most particularly his acerbic foreman (former Group Theater member, soon to be blacklisted Art Smith) and the neighborhood cop who regularly chastises him for too recklessly backing his heap out of the driveway.

Actually, God enters history only by hearsay. Charles Schnee’s rigorously schematic script ensures that, on each of the six days God takes to the airwaves, the viewing audience will miss the divine performance. The movie’s producer, Dore Schary, was afraid that movie patrons might react with laughter—as well they might have. An MGM promotional release articulated the producer’s point of view: “May I suggest that, while you do not hear God’s voice, you go to see The Next Voice You Hear accepting the premise that God would use the radio much as at an earlier date He used the burning bush.” Hmmmm. The unheard voice of God is the essence of what Jacques Ellul called “sociological propaganda”—that vague, spontaneous, half-conscious form of social bonding and ideological proselytizing advanced by advertising, newspaper editorials, social service agencies, patriotic speeches, and anything else that might use the phrase “way of life.” (A New Beginning, the 1984 Reagan campaign film, is political propaganda with a heavy “sociological” overlay—like The Next Voice, an American equivalent to Stalinist socialist realism.)

The Next Voice You Hear represents a utopian totalitarian world where everyone can receive the same message at the same moment. (While the movie is careful to note that all hear the Voice in their own language, it is taken for granted that the Voice is always heard when it’s primetime in L.A.—after all, that’s where movies are made.) Thus, The Next Voice is of 1950 but not in it: The Smiths do not own a television set; like God, TV cannot be represented. Nor is this the only absence. No one refers to the Atomic Bomb, let alone the recent loss of America’s nuclear monopoly. The Russians are furtively referred to (but not China). The word “Communism” is never even whispered, neither is the name “Jesus.”

In short, The Next Voice You Hear is set in a fantastic parallel universe that rigorously works to exclude or conceal that which it might actually be about. Let’s call that imaginary world, The Movies.

- J. Hoberman, adapted from the introduction to An Army of Phantoms: Hollywood and the Making of the Cold War

Copies of Hoberman's new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, will be available for sale at the event.

Print of The Next Voice You Hear courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 6:30pm.