Back to the Movies 1984 | No. 49: Oh, God! You Devil!


Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1984 in order from 50 to 1.

The next film on my list forced me to confront a problem inherent to doing a project like this, yet somehow one I managed to avoid during my cinematic voyage through 1983. What do you do in a project like this when you encounter a sequel to a movie you haven’t seen? Do I add to my workload by forcing myself to watch the film’s predecessors in order to add the context I need to truly appreciate the movie?

Thankfully, the next film on the list, Oh, God! You Devil!, allows me to kick that can a little further down the road once again, since I’ve seen the original Oh, God! and since apparently this third film in the series has absolutely no plot connections to the second film in the series, Oh, God! Book II. Eventually, I’m going to have to make a decision on this issue but that day is not today.

All this hand-wringing raises the first and most important question here: how did we arrive at a point in 1984 where Hollywood was producing the third film in a franchise about a wise-cracking, cigar-smoking Almighty played by George Burns? The original film, a corny but mostly pleasant Noah-esque tale starring John Denver, was a surprising success back in 1977, finishing as one of the top ten highest-grossing films of that year with $41 million. The 1980 sequel (which, as I mentioned earlier, I have not seen and know nothing about) was decidedly less successful, earning just $14 million.

Somehow, in spite of that flop, Oh, God! earned a second sequel but this time with an added twist: George Burns would play a double role, starring as both God and Satan (under the name of Harry O. Tophet). The casting stunt would add much needed spice to the rather saccharine original premise, provided of course that the aging Burns could pull it off (we’ll get to that later).

The story that ended up wrapped around that premise is both hilariously oversimplified and yet incredibly convoluted at times, but here’s my best attempt at a summary: Bobby Shelton (played by Ted Wass, who you would only potentially know as the dad on Blossom) is a struggling musician who is “pushing 30” and trying to make ends meet but just can’t seem to catch a break. Bobby’s wife (the lovely Roxanne Hart) is supportive and sweet and only wants to settle down and start a family with Bobby but his ambition to become a star makes him unable to see the good things he already has. You know the drill.

A quick note: the movie begins with Bobby as a very sick young boy whose father prays to God to protect him and save him from his illness. Cut to 1984, Bobby casually mentions that he’d sell his soul to have a successful music career, which summons a call from the Devil, who happens to be a big-time talent agent. The Devil grants Bobby’s wish by allowing him to swap lives with a Billy Idol-like rockstar named Billy Wayne.

This is where it gets confusing. It’s unclear what exactly has happened here. Bobby appears fully aware of who he used to be before the switch and misses his wife and his old life, while the former Billy Wayne appears to think he is now Bobby. Also, the real Bobby finds out that his wife is pregnant and after determining her due date, becomes excited to find out that it’s “his” baby, which doesn’t make a lot of sense considering everything else we just said.

Take a look at this scene, in which Bobby is forced to take the stage as Billy Wayne but is nervous because obviously, he’s Bobby and doesn’t even know any of Billy Wayne’s songs. Only once he starts singing, it turns out he has part of Billy Wayne’s memories. Or his brain. Or something. Just watch it anyway because this scene is hilarious.

Outside of these plot details, there are quite a few scenes that are at least enjoyable to behold, if only for the nostalgia factor. From the absolutely terrific answering machine technology from the beginning of the movie to the scenes inside Billy Wayne’s mansion that give us a peak into the 1984 ideal of garish luxury, this movie is great fodder for those enjoy transporting themselves back to early ’80s on ocassion.

Another great thing about this movie: Ron Silver and Robert Picardo as two ultra-slimy record executives who are essentially used as puppets by the Devil to draw Bobby deeper and deeper in to the dark world of rock stardom.

We’ve danced around it this far, but this movie obviously hinges heavily on the dual performances of George Burns, and in 1984 the reviews seem nearly unanimously positive. Janet Maslin of The New York Times found Burns’ performance superior to his previous Oh, God! performances, particularly commending the fact that “there is mercifully little in the way of ”Bless Me” witticisms” (admittedly, a problem with the original film). Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up, comparing the film to a Frank Capra movie and calling Burns’ performance “a masterpiece of sly timing.”

Burns is obviously a beloved figure, probably a little less so today than in 1984 but still certainly a likable screen persona. That said, Burns was 88 years old when he made this movie and not exactly at his sharpest. The editing and direction from longtime TV director Paul Bogart doesn’t do Burns any favors in that regard but the end result for the viewer makes for a somewhat awkward viewing experience at times. Oddly the most effective scene in the film was probably the most difficult to execute: a poker game between Burns’ two characters for the soul of Bobby.

I can’t call Oh, God! You Devil! a good movie because there are just too many fundamental flaws with the story and not enough strong acting for the main members of the cast. That said, there’s still plenty to enjoy here and as mentioned, this film has an extremely high nostalgia factor.

Next Up: Taylor Hackford’s sexy neo-noir Against All Odds.