'The Man Who Played God' was originally a story by the best-selling author Gouverneur Morris (a direct descendant of his namesake who signed the Declaration of Independence). The story was adapted as a successful stage vehicle for the actor George Arliss. He made a silent-film version in 1922, then remade it as a talkie ten years later. The property was eventually remade as 'Sincerely Yours', the film that was meant to launch the film career of Liberace as a romantic leading man. (Oh, well.)
This silent version is proficiently made, and features deft performances by Arliss and by Ivan Simpson as his loyal butler. The underrated supporting actor Ivan Simpson was a favourite of Arliss, a longtime veteran of Arliss's stage troupe who later appeared in several of Arliss's film vehicles.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. The plot of this film is nearly identical to those of the 1933 remake and the Liberace version. Montgomery Royle (Arliss) is a successful and wealthy concert pianist whose career is scuppered when he begins to go deaf. He retires to his posh penthouse overlooking Central Park. His much younger fiancee Marjorie remains faithful to him. To cope with his deafness, Royle has learnt to lip-read (more about this later). With plenty of free time on his hands, he uses a set of binoculars and his lip-reading ability to eavesdrop in the personal lives of the people who pass through Central Park. Gradually, he takes an interest in their problems. Discreetly, Royle uses his wealth and influence to improve the lives of those distant people so far below. Meanwhile, his own personal life takes a turn for the worse. Lip-reading one of Marjorie's private conversations, he learns that she is now in love with a man her own age ... but her pity for Royle's condition prevents her from leaving him. Nobly, Royle ends the engagement himself ... and then discovers that he loves Mildred, a friend nearer his own age who has quietly been in love with him all along.
Arliss gives a dignified and authoritative performance in the central role of this silent drama, but this particular plotline really requires sound. In a silent film, we can't fully appreciate the isolation of Arliss's deafness: as this entire film is silent, Arliss's condition is not noticeably different from that of the people around him (who can hear, but who have nothing TO hear in this movie). In his role as a concert pianist, we see Arliss's fingers playing over the piano keys ... but, unable to hear his music, we have no sense of his character's abilities.
More fatally, lip-reading is a VERY inexact science. My late wife Diane was almost totally deaf (she loved silent films), and she knew from bitter experience that lip-reading doesn't work very well because so many words in spoken English use identical positions of the lips. I was present when she mis-read a spoken question as 'Do you read much?' and she answered 'Constantly, even in bed.' But the speaker had actually asked her 'Do you DRINK much?' (Try this in a mirror: the spoken words 'drink' and 'read' look exactly alike.) And most people don't enunciate clearly, which makes lip-reading even more prone to errors. So 'The Man Who Played God' isn't especially plausible. Ironically, George Arliss owned possibly the most stiff upper lip in the history of movie acting: he was probably the most un-lipreadable actor who ever won an Oscar.
I'll rate this silent version 5 points out of 10, on the strength of the deft performances by Arliss and Simpson and some splendid camera-work by Harry Fishbeck. Mary Astor overacts horribly as one of the anonymous people whom Royle secretly assists.
Here's a trivia item: although George Arliss never met Marilyn Monroe, he had a profound effect on her early life. In 1934, when Arliss was under contract to 20th Century-Fox, young Norma Jean Mortenson and her mother lived in a boarding-house owned by an obscure English actor who had steady work at Fox as Arliss's stand-in. When Arliss left Hollywood to continue his film career England, his stand-in went with him ... forcing 8-year-old Norma Jean and her mother to move into much more squalid accommodations elsewhere, with unfortunate results for the girl who would grow up to be Marilyn Monroe. Unlike the main character in this movie, sometimes people 'play God' in other people's lives without realising it.
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