Sunday, October 07, 2012

Conversations With the Almighty

"You can love each other, cherish and nurture each other or you can kill each other. Incidentally, 'kill' is the word. It's not 'waste.' If I had wanted 'waste,' I would have written 'thou shalt not waste.' You're doing some very funny things with words. You're also turning the sky into mud. I look down, I can't believe the filth. Using the rivers for toilets, poisoning my fishes. You want a miracle? You make a fish from scratch. You can't. You think only God can make a tree? Try coming up with a mackerel. And when the last one's gone, that'll be that. Eighty–six on the fish, goodbye sky, so long world, over and out."

God (George Burns)

Considering that there were three colleges in my central Arkansas hometown, I really find it astonishing, as I look back on my childhood, when I remember that there was only one theater in town until I was in junior high — when a modest two–screen theater opened in a strip mall (well, it was mostly a Walmart store with some smaller stores sprinkled around it).

The original theater had been one of those old–fashioned places with a marquee out front, a real lobby and an actual balcony section that one climbed a carpeted stairway to reach. It was the kind of theater you might see in old movies or TV reruns today — but seldom, if ever, anywhere else.

When that two–screen theater came along, it really was the beginning of the end for that old–fashioned theater. In fact, it went out of business a few years later.

But the two–screen theater faced its share of competition, too. Even though the number of movie options available locally had doubled, the city of Little Rock offered far more so that is where the college kids — and the high school kids, too — went on the weekends.

I've been thinking about that because it was 35 years ago today that "Oh, God!" — an amusing and thought–provoking comedy starring John Denver and George Burns — premiered on American movie screens. And that, in turn, reminded me of the first time I saw that movie.

Even with two screens in my hometown, it generally took many months for new releases to get there. If you wanted to see the latest hits while they were still hot, you had to go to Little Rock.

(The duplication of screens did speed things up some, as I recall. When I was a child, it wasn't uncommon for it to take a year or more for a hit movie to come to my hometown. After the two–screen theater opened, the wait was cut to about six months.)

Anyway, I recall one weekend when Karen (my high school girlfriend — I've written about her here before) and I had been through a rather stressful period. I don't remember what the cause of the stress had been, only that it had been stressful.

Karen's father suggested that we go see a movie, and he specifically suggested that we go see "Oh, God!" I suppose that wasn't surprising. Karen's father was a philosophy professor (and son of a Lutheran minister) — not to mention something of an admirer of screen comedians of Burns' generation. "Oh, God!" was a hot topic at the time. It was getting good reviews, and he thought it would be just the thing to lift our spirits.

But the thing I remember is that he kept calling it "Oh My God!" at the dinner table that evening, producing some muffled snickering at his mistake from Karen, her brother and sister and me.

(I guess, with OMG being such a popular acronym today, he might be regarded now as being ahead of his time.)

During that meal, however, he persuaded Karen and me to take the 30–minute drive to Little Rock to see the movie that evening — and we did.

And it certainly did lift our spirits.'s Brendon Hanley writes that "[t]he movie's surprising charm owes a lot to the understated comic timing and charisma of vaudeville legend George Burns in the title role."

There was much truth in that. Burns, with his curmudgeonly appeal, would have been my choice to play the Almighty. He had the kind of demeanor I would like to think God has.

Like in the scene in which, after being urged by Denver to perform a miracle to prove his identity, God makes it rain inside Denver's Pacer (if you aren't old enough to remember the Pacer, consider yourself lucky).

When Denver observes that it is raining only in his vehicle, Burns replies, "Why should I spoil everyone's day?"

The premise of the movie, in case you've never seen it, was that God needed a messenger to spread the word that he was alive and he had provided the people of the earth with everything they needed.

His choice to serve in this capacity was an assistant manager of a grocery store.

Like most people probably would, Denver's character asked, "Why me?"

"Why not?" Burns asked. "Life is a crap shoot, like the millionth customer that crosses the bridge gets to shake hands with the governor. You thought I picked you because you're better than everyone?"

"I'm not?" Denver asked.

"You're better than some but not as good as others," Burns answered, "but you crossed the bridge at the right time."

I also thoroughly liked watching Teri Garr in the role of Denver's long–suffering wife who has questions about her husband's stability but stays with him in spite of it all.

(I would have enjoyed watching Garr, anyway. I first saw her in "Young Frankenstein" a few years earlier, and I thought she was cute.)

Denver actually was a pleasant surprise for me. I had been a fan of his music for awhile. I even saw him perform in person once. But I had no idea he could give such a plausible performance in a movie.

Denver's music was featured in several movies, both before and after his death in 1997. He also made several guest appearances on TV shows. But it really is a shame that he never starred in another movie.

His performance in "Oh, God!" offers glimpses into what might have been in store for us if Denver had chosen to share his acting talent with us more frequently.

He had a look of boyish wonder on his face in the rain–in–the–Pacer scene that thoroughly enhanced his straight–man line: "It's just like Noah's ark!"

"Same thing," Burns replied. "Without the smell."

Earlier, when Burns appeared before Denver and told him that he wanted him to be his messenger, Denver protested as many people probably would, "I don't even go to any church."

"Neither do I," replied Burns.

"Oh, God!" was quite a hit — and, as hits often do, it inspired some dreadful sequels that should have served as cautionary tales — but clearly, in many cases, they have gone unheeded.

As did Burns' parting line to Denver.

"[N]ow and then," Denver says, "couldn't we just talk?"

"I'll tell you what," Burns says. "You talk, I'll listen."