The Man Who Played God is a George Arliss vehicle that most are drawn to today because it is also an early and important Bette Davis movie. While it was a major release for Arliss in February 1932, it’s Davis who makes The Man Who Played God relevant for all but hardcore classic film devotees today. You don’t have to look any further than Warner Archive’s selection of George Arliss titles to see that this is so. One of the three Warner Archive releases is a triple-feature marketed around Arliss. One man’s triple-feature is another’s value pack. Their other two Arliss DVDs are standalone titles most notable because of Bette’s support. Arliss’ immortality is secure because of the Academy Award he won for Disreali (1929), but the two movies with Davis (The Working Man is the other) do more to assure his continued relevancy.
Arliss stands alone on Warner Archive’s DVD cover tempering expectations of Davis fans as yet unfamiliar with The Man Who Played God. If anything they may be pleasantly surprised by how much time the young supporting actress is acquitted in a film where she is technically third billed. Her performance is good as Arliss’ doting young admirer though her most recognizable flashes come during displays of annoyance and attraction opposite Donald Cook, who plays a more age appropriate love interest. At the very least, Davis gives a better account of herself than the actress billed before her, Violet Heming, who can be labeled competent at best. It’s no contest in terms of personality and screen charisma between the two leading ladies, Davis makes Heming an afterthought. But in reality The Man Who Played God is no more a Bette Davis film than it is a Violet Heming film. Without George Arliss, the movie doesn’t have a pulse.
After watching The Man Who Played God for this review I took to the Lantern search engine to seek out contemporary opinion. I found my own views very much in line with Variety, who warned exhibitors, “It will require all the prestige of Arliss to register with the fan crowd.” Their reviewer thought it was asking too much of the mighty Mr. Arliss “to sustain interest for 80 minutes in a soliloquy that was originally a short story.” This baby drags, especially at the start when we’re asked to believe that the Arliss character, a famous and talented concert pianist, can claim the charms of both Heming and Davis while failing to charm the audience. I was enjoying Paul Porcasi’s act more than anyone else’s until terrorists thankfully set off a bomb that claims Arliss’ hearing.
Then it gets interesting.
As Mildred (Heming) tells Monty (Arliss) a little later, he’s never suffered before this personal tragedy, so his new handicap is the first time he’s ever really been tested. As expected Monty has a terrible time adjusting to his deafness. He keeps to himself, wallowing in his misfortune and taking out his anger on his unfortunate visitors. It’s not until Grace (Davis) mentions the obvious example of Beethoven’s deafness when begging Monty to play for her that he begins to reveal some depth. He’s not like Beethoven, Monty tells her. He doesn’t feel music in his soul; he loves the sounds and he needs to hear music to appreciate it. Otherwise it’s meaningless to him. That barrier seems to make Monty’s happiness impossible.
He’s distracted for a time learning to read lips, but has otherwise become dependent upon Grace’s visits. Whereas she used to cling to him, now he needs her affection. They plan to marry after she returns from Santa Barbara, but her allegiance seems to be teetering towards Harold Von Adam (Donald Cook), a young man closer to her own age who follows Grace to California. After five months of suffering, a temper tantrum leads Monty to smash his violin before sending his manservant, Battle (Simpson), out of the room so he can smash himself. It is no surprise when Monty climbs onto the window sill and throws the glass open preparing to jump. Suicide seems like only alternative to his perpetual misery.
Battle saves Monty from jumping and then wakes up his boss and friend by calling him a coward. Monty agrees, but confesses how desperately unhappy he is. He then rallies against God stating he sees no guiding hand, no beauty, no method to the madness he’s made to suffer. Battle explains, “It’s contrast that makes life so wonderful.” Monty looks down upon nature through a pair of opera glasses that Grace had left behind and is unmoved by the visual contrast it offers to his personal darkness. Then he notices that he can read the distant lips of the pedestrians who stop and chat below. He’s intrigued by their troubles, which always boil down to dollars and cents. It is then that he decides to play God.
Monty first sees himself as a benevolent alternative to God. He sends Battle down to ground level with a note that saves the fortunes of a desperate couple and then he celebrates his own mercy, not God’s, in his act of salvation. We see Monty’s competition with God dwindle as he takes a pure delight in playing Santa Claus to a group of underprivileged children outside of his window. He even sings a song as he stops to play with their toys while packing them for Battle to deliver.
Mildred visits and is thrilled to find Monty the same man she always remembered. During her visit Monty shows off his new powers and explains that he’s found his salvation in answering “the cry of those who suffer in doubt, as I suffered in doubt.” Monty’s reformed outlook is challenged when he sees Grace approaching with young Von Allen and he ignores Mildred’s warning against reading their lips. Can he continue to believe after his new-found power shatters the love that was once his sole salvation?
The Man Who Played God was a major hit in early 1932 and managed to close the year as one of Hollywood’s most successful films. It ranked for two consecutive months among Motion Picture Herald’s box office champions and polled third in Film Daily’s end of the year roll of honor behind only Shanghai Express and Broken Lullaby. A foreign correspondent reported to Film Daily that it was seen by a quarter of a million people during a three-week run at the Regal Theatre in Arliss’ native England, where it played as Silent Voice. Despite its widespread success, Will Hays, head of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), mentioned its failure in New York and Los Angeles in his annual report, though cited The Man Who Played God as just the type of wholesome film the industry could rally behind.
The original short story, also titled “The Man Who Played God,” was by Gouverneur Morris (1876-1953) and first appeared in the January 1912 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Jules Eckert Goodman adapted the story into the play The Silent Voice, a Charles Frohman production that premiered on Broadway in late 1914 with Otis Skinner in the starring role. The first of four movie adaptations came in 1915, also The Silent Voice, with Francis. X. Bushman starring. The next was The Man Who Played God starring George Arliss—in 1922. This later sound version was Arliss’ third talkie remake of previous silent film successes following Disreali (1921, 1929) and The Green Goddess (1923, 1930). The story was then shelved for many years before returning in 1955 as Sincerely Yours starring Liberace.
The Man Who Played God is not as creaky as some of Arliss’ historical dramas are, but he still comes across as a stage actor giving a stage performance for the movie screen. This would have been a benefit to those beyond the reach of Broadway in 1932, but today’s viewers typically aren’t going to be aware of what they were missing from the stage. The later eavesdropping scenes become episodic, and despite some familiar faces there isn’t a whole lot to the park bench performances beyond waiting to return to Arliss for his reaction. I actually like George Arliss a lot, but with the notable exception of The House of Rothschild (1934), I prefer his comedies such as A Successful Calamity (1932), The Working Man (1933), The King’s Vacation (1933), and Mister Hobo, aka The Guv’nor, (1935).
My thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of their recent manufactured-on-demand DVD-R of The Man Who Played God. - Pick up your copy here. All accompanying screen captures were grabbed from my copy of that Warner Archive disc.
- Hays, Will H. The President’s Report to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. New York: MPDA, 1932.
- “March Box Office Champions.” Motion Picture Herald. 23 April 1932, p. 22.
- Mitchell, L.H. “Foreign Markets: ‘Silent Voice’ in London.” Film Daily. 29 May 1932, p. 7.
- Rev. of The Man Who Played God. Variety. 16 February 1932, p. 24.
- “The 1932 Roll of Honor.” Film Daily. 11 January 1933, p. 2.