The Bette Davis Project: The Man Who Played God (1932)

The Man Who Played God (1932)Synopsis:

A famous concert pianist, Montgomery Royle (George Arliss, Cardinal Richelieu), loses his hearing after an assassination attempt on one of his guests. The bitter Royle retires, and even contemplates suicide. When he learns to read lips, Royle begins devoting his time to help unsuspecting pedestrians that he watches from his apartment using a pair of binoculars.

Reaction & Thoughts:

The Man Who Played God, directed by John G. Adolfi (Sinners’ Holiday), was based on the play The Silent Voice by Jules Eckert Goodman, and had been twice adapted to the screen. First in 1914, and yet again in 1922, which also starred Arliss.

Ten years later, celebrated British Arliss was keen on making a sound version of his early silent hit. Arliss was one of the most popular actors of the early sound era and the film was a huge box-office hit. Today, the film suffers from the awkward pacing that characterizes most films of the era. Adolfi directs unimaginatively, but the story is good and the actors are excellent.

Despite being conceived as a star vehicle for British actor Arliss, The Man Who Played God is best remembered as the first film Bette Davis made at Warner Bros, the studio that nurtured her talents for almost twenty years. She plays Arliss’s protegé. Davis herself called it “the most important role of my career.” Arliss personally selected her for the role and she was forever grateful to the actor. Some modern viewers find her performance mannered, but I thought her magnetic personality gave the film a much-need infusion of energy — we get to see Davis’s wonderfully edgy mannerisms for the very first time.

Although the undeniably great chemistry between Arliss and Davis takes center stage, the supporting cast provide a few good moments. Louise Closser Hale is wonderful as a widow who is secretly in love with Arliss’s character, and  Ivan F. Simpson shines as the ever faithful butler. Watch out for future Oscar-winner actor Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend) and actor-turned-columnist Hedda Hopper in small roles.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

There’s no question about it, The Man Who Played God has dated badly. Arliss is great though. And Davis really shines here. If you can get past the primitive filmmaking, you’ll enjoy two great actors doing a good job. Remade one more time in 1955 as Sincerely Yours with Liberace (yes, it is not a typo) in Arliss’s old role. B&W, 80 minutes, Not Rated.

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