Stories based on Faust are everywhere. When I was in High School, I did an interp piece from “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benét, it was my first exposure to the story of a man who sells his soul for wealth and fame. Not too much later I saw “The Phantom of the Paradise” a contemporary rock scored film using the same concept. In 1977 there was a short lived TV show called “A Year At the Top” , about two musicians from the hinterlands who sell out to make it big in pop music, and as I remember it, it was a sit-com with music sequences. After the success of the original “Oh God!” with George Burns in the title role from 1977, it was followed by “Oh God!, Book II” in 1980 and then this movie, which finally gets to the Faustian bargain that I was hinting at before.
The original premise of George Burns as God, is twisted around this time so that he has a dual role, and plays God’s opposite for the majority of the picture. Where God had been portrayed as a doddering old guy in a golf cap and jacket in the first films, the Devil, in the form of Harry O. Tophet [HOT], is a slick early hipster in dashing sports coats and tuxedos. He also has a few other distinctive characteristics that will give the movie a little pizazz.
Burns had been a successful performer for fifty years before this movie came out, but he had not appeared in a movie from 1941 on until a revived career was launched when he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in “The Sunshine Boys”. Suddenly, Burns was Hot [tautology intended]. He made ten movies after the age of 80 and was the main reason that this trio of films exists and were financially successful.
The first film was a satire on celebrity and religion but a gentle spirited one. God is a non-denominational presence that simply wants us to look out for each other. In this movie, a young father prays for assistance when his son has scarlet fever and may not make it through the night. In a touching scene the Dad then sings to him the Fugue for Tinhorns from “Guys and Dolls”, inspiring a life time love of music in his son.
God hears the prayer and intervenes, which now puts the young boy on a watch list. Flash forward twenty five years to the other side of the country and that boy has grown to be an unsuccessful song writer and entertainer. Now he is played by actor Ted Wass, a handsome man who the year before was stuck in a Pink Panther Movie trying to track down Inspector Clouseau. That’s right, they tried to replace Peter Sellars with this poor man’s Chevy Chase. There are several moments in the film where Wass does the same kinds of pratfalls that he did in imitating Sellars the year before. Wass also starred in another 1984 film, one that I had the good sense to miss in 84, and for the 32 years since, “Sheena: Queen of the Jungle”. This was the peak of his movie career. He later went on to work in front of the camera on television but within ten years transitioned into a journeyman sit-com director with several series under his belt.
There are several well know character actors in this film, including Ron Silver, Robert Picardo and James Cromwell. Ultimately the success of the picture relies on Burns who appears on screen for a relative few number of scenes. He is given a chance to use his trademark cigar smoking in the film and several references are suggested to Hell without ever mentioning it by name. The faith element of the movie would probably irritated the more self rigtheous atheists in the audience, but the message is never heavy handed and the themes of love, faith and hope are so generic that you would have to be a bit of a prig to find them problematic. The deal the Devil makes does not seem to involve much damnation, when Bobby Shelton takes over for rock star Billy Wayne, the guy who was Wayne gets sent to live Bobby’s life, not to hell.
The closest we get to something demonic are when Harry’s eyes turn glowing red. Otherwise, the negative consequences of encountering him is you end up in a Three Stooges Short where everyone trips over one another and the bride and groom end up in the pool. The only dark scenes in the film involve Bobby contemplating suicide as a way to escape his contract.
The screenplay is largely the responsibility of Andrew Bergman, a guy who contributed to “Blazing Saddles”, wrote “The In-Laws” and directed and wrote the comedy “The Freshman”. He has a talent for making the absurd seem almost real but I think on plotting he was a little out of his depths here. The manner in which a persons soul is traded for success is not some Crossroads deal where you go the hell at the end of the contract but you get everything you want before the contract is up. Instead, the contract signatory gets someone else success rather than their own. The Devil lies to Bobby about the length of the contract he is signing, which gives God a motivation to intervene.
Bobby sleeps with dozens of women in his new life, all of them meaningless groupies but there is no guilt or consequence ever suggested from those lifestyle choices. He does not write the songs he is singing, so their success he gains is not really for his work. His wife, is leading the same life only under the impression that the former Billy Wayne is Bobby. Presumably, they are sleeping together. Bergman gives the story an out by making the child she is carrying one who would have been conceived while he was still himself. It’s a little precious.
Throughout, Burns does a little bit of shtick, he makes a joke at the expense of the entertainment industry or performs a little dance in a wedding or casino setting.
He has a natural and relaxed charm that allows us to buy into some of these things because he simply sells it. Sometimes that smile of his is just exactly as demonic as the film wants you to believe he is. Both as God and as the Devil, the characters have to rely on some visual proof of who they are to the main character in the story, so we get several camera tricks and photo shopped type images that are supposed to pass as miraculous. The real miracle is how much the skylines of both Los Angeles and Las Vegas have changed in 30 years. This picture provides some nice vistas and helicopter shots of those towns from 1984, and believe me, the differences to today are noticeable.
I remembered nothing about this movie except the confrontation between God and the Devil toward the end. I saw it opening weekend in 1984, and haven’t thought of it again until this project. The idea of a poker game as a way of resolving who wins Bobby’s sould is a bit short sighted and not very creative. It certainly does nothing to advance the moral of the story that was being sold for most of the running time. It feels a little bit like a cheat.
The truth is, the film was a piffle when it came out, and if seems to be a dated piffle now. It’s not bad, but it is also not good. It is certainly not one of the movies that motivated this project in the first place, It was a place holder in the early Holiday season, and as soon as other films came along, it was quickly forgotten. Unless you have a George Burns marathon on your bucket list, or insist on seeing every film a a franchise, you can safely leave this one to catch sometime when Netfix has it for free on it’s calendar.