Hearing Things

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The Voice of The Next Voice You Hear… is that of God, who communicate to the peoples of the earth via radio broadcasts. Not quite your standard Hollywood fare. The film, which was released in 1950, is directed by the great William Wellman, and, to look at his résumé, it seems an unlikely cinematic vehicle for him. When I think of Wellman I think of action—whether it’s outdoors, as in such adventure and war films as Wings, Battleground, The High and the Mighty or Wild Boys of the Road; or, in a more pungent sense, indoors, in such spicy fare like Roxie Hart, Nothing Sacred, Lady of Burlesque, or Night Nurse. From filmed interviews I’ve seen with him, Wellman struck me as a man who couldn’t sit still: thin and wiry, his voice rapid and jabbing in its rhythms, his whole personality exuded a lusty, piss-and-vinegar attitude towards life. A guy who liked to keep things moving, and moving fast.

But The Next Voice You Hear… is small-scaled and quiet in its effect; even meditative. It centers on how one small, representative middle-class family, the symbolically named Joe and Mary Smith, and, by extension, the world, is affected by something quite out of the ordinary. The story seems like one that would have appealed to devoutly Catholic directors like Leo McCarey or John Farrow, or perhaps to Frank Borzage, an artist who explored intense, rapturous emotion within mundane reality. But Wellman, per his son William Wellman, Jr.’s biography of his father, Wild Bill Wellman, felt this film would give him a chance to present his spiritual side. He and his writers (George Sumner Albee and Charles Schnee) both emphasize and explore the ordinary and everyday in their film: a family sitting down to breakfast; factory workers meeting for lunch; a community gathering at church. It’s a reality made up of small, annoying incidents: a car doesn’t start, an icebox doesn’t work, a son whines about what’s for dinner, and a man grouses about his boss. People gripe, complain, and cope the best they can; it’s all in a typical day. And yet bursting into these humdrum events is a profound religious experience: God has chosen to speak and make known the divine will.

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While the story itself is fantasy, Wellman never lets the film become fantastic. No heavenly choirs or gauzy visions of beatitude occur; Wellman is too savvy to play for kitsch. He keeps everything grounded in the commonplace. Even the way the Voice happens is strikingly ordinary—speaking every night at 8:30, just round the time that families of that era would turn on the radio for the evening programs. But we in the film audience never hear the Voice. What we know of it is from other characters or from radio news bulletins reporting on its statements. Everyone has an opinion about the Voice (Mary wonders if it might be “one of those Orson Welles things”!), but no one has an answer. It is, as the expression goes, what it is; and those hearing the Voice can only make sense of it by listening to what it has to say.

And what the Voice says is nothing new. It asks for people to be kind, to reach out to each other, to remember their common humanity. Nothing more, but nothing less. Wellman films his characters and their reactions with few close-ups, instead concentrating on groups: Joe, Mary, and their son Johnny eat, joke, and argue round the kitchen table, or Joe and his mates chat as they dress in the factory locker room. Wellman layers his images, with activity occurring in both fore and background. We’re aware of how people congregate, how they arrange their spaces, how their physical bodies place themselves in relation to each other, and how the world carries on around them. Much of the action is simply long takes of people moving, or talking—to family members, neighbors, co-workers, tension quietly filling their own voices as they try to figure out what’s going on. Wellman’s direction is so deceptively limpid and calm we might not at first catch on to the import of what’s happening. But the cumulative effect is immense—we become aware not only of the bigness of it all, but also its terror.

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That, for me, is what made this film stand out. Wellman never indulged in the sappily sentimental in his work, and he holds to that attitude here; God on the radio is not a joke. Listeners move from mild puzzlement (“Sure was a wonderful Voice,” Joe muses), to annoyance at what seems like a dumb hoax; then to anger that no one is doing “anything” to stop it, and finally to sheer horror. For hearing God makes people afraid—of their own fragile existences, and of the very fact of dying. Confronted by eternity, they’re forced to accept their own finitude. This fear hits the Smiths most intimately: Mary, who’s pregnant, becomes frightened about her health, and young Johnny suddenly asks his father if women can die in childbirth. When Mary goes into labor, she drops a plate and the sound of its cracking brings the whole family running; yet her pain, and terror, are kept offscreen. As with the Voice, we don’t experience the event directly; we only see, as if glimpsing through a glass darkly, how other characters can react, their very bodies trapped by their dread.

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It’s in the fear of, and brush with death that this scene, and the film as a whole, connects most deeply with Wellman’s great movies. I was reminded of how his other characters encounter their mortality—of Dana Andrews’s face as the noose is placed round his neck in The Ox-Bow Incident; of Fredric March’s long stare at the sea in A Star is Born; and of the haunting scene in Westward The Women in which, after fending off an Indian attack, the survivors shout out, one by one, the names of their killed and dead companions, their voices echoing over the empty stretch of desert. Death in Wellman’s films is often the realization of a terrible solitude, when we become aware of how alone in the dark we really are. Perhaps, as the Voice asks, it’s only in our stretching out our arms out to each other that we can deal with its grim finality, and achieve a small moment of solace.

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Wellman made The Next Voice You Hear… during a three-year contract period at MGM, working with the then-head of production Dore Schary. Wellman, Jr. notes that Schary liked to make “message pictures,” the very thing Wellman disliked; but the director became interested in the story and took care with it—boasting to an interviewer how he made it not with major stars but with newcomers who could deliver “just good solid acting.” He certainly got that. Wellman was always good with actors, most particularly with his female stars. Actresses like Ida Lupino, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dorothy Mackail gave some of their best performances for him, and Nancy Davis (Reagan) as Mary Smith does so here. She’s obviously much better known today as a former First Lady, but that then was still decades in the future. At the time of this film she was a run-of-the-mill character actress who usually played dutiful wives or the heroine’s best girlfriend.  But if each actor is allowed to give one great performance, this definitely was Davis’s; it’s one for the angels.

There’s nothing remarkable about housewife Mary Smith, but, as the focus and unifying force of her family, she’s one in a line of other strong, smart women in Wellman’s films. No longer young—“Found a gray hair today, my first one”—Mary’s anxiety about her health and her child’s impending birth seeps through her outwardly calm and smiling surface. Davis is wonderful here, revealing the tension within Mary, particularly through the small, fleeting, yet deep expressions on the human countenance. There’s humor, weariness, and love; worry, anger, and a kind of amused compassion for her harried husband (an excellent James Whitmore). But it’s not just her face; Davis also conveys much just with her back to the camera, such as during her typical stance of sitting at the kitchen counter while she prepares food: letting us see patience, annoyance, and fatigue through the angle of shoulder and turn of spine. She bores into the thick of this humble character who, in the midst of a big miraculous event, must face her own small miracle, of bringing a new life into the world. Within this sweet, minor movie Wellman gives us a major performance. And for that small cinematic miracle I love this film.

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This post is part of The William Wellman Blogathon, hosted by the blog Now Voyaging. Please click here to read other posts on the films of this great American director.

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9 Comments

  1. I love this movie, and your post wonderfully captures the exquisite sensitivity of this quiet little movie. Well done.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! I think it’s a unusual film and one that should be better known. It creates an air of tranquil mystery in its story, one that I attribute to Wellman’s taste and seriousness about the subject.

      Reply
  2. I’ve never seen this but must definitely do so now and then re-read your piece.. Wonderful posting – reading this I’m fascinated to see how the reactions of the listeners change as the broadcasts carry on. Those confrontations with death you mention are all among the most powerful moments in Wellman films. Also the scene in the streets in the rain towards the end of The Public Enemy has the same feeling of loneliness.

    Reply
    • It’s a move definitely worth seeing (it’s on a Warner Bros Archive DVD), rather different from the usual Hollywood religious movies. You can tell that Wellman put a great deal of care into its making. There’s often those scenes of loneliness in Wellman’s films; I recall the scene in The Ox-Bow Incident after the 3 innocent men are hanged, and one witness chants a hymn at the place of execution. It always gives me a chill. Thanks so much for commenting!

      Reply
  3. I’ve long been curious about this movie, but we’ve yet to cross paths. Your wonderful article gives me much to consider when that day comes.

    Reply
    • I definitely recommend seeing it (it’s on a Warner Bros Archive DVD). There’s something unique and individual about it; and it tends to grow on you. Thanks so much.

      Reply
  4. I haven’t been able to see this film yet but you have definitely made me want to! A terrific post, nicely written and very thoughtful. Thank you for joining the blogathon!

    Reply
  1. The William Wellman Blogathon Has Arrived! – Now Voyaging

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