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Edna May Oliver,
THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD (Warner Brothers, 1932), directed by John G. Adolfi, from a short story by Gouverneur Morris, stars Academy Award winning actor of 1929s DISRAELI, Mr. George Arliss, in a remake to his 1922 silent screen adaptation. Essentially a showcase for the prestigious Arliss in what might have been just another movie assignment to his credit, it's best known as the motion picture responsible for the advancement of Bette Davis in her first important screen role, following her start at Universal in 1931, thus the beginning of her long association at the Warner studio where she would become its major star attraction before the end of the decade.
Of the George Arliss films in circulation and video today, THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD holds up remarkably well mainly due to its theme and timely message that never really grows out of date, overlooking the fact that such a story echoes passages from the Holy Bible ("A man who has never suffered has never lived," "If you kill yourself, you'll suffer ten thousand times more" or the age old question, "If God is so merciful, how could he allow this to happen to me?") preached during Sunday services. The title has nothing to do with a actor starring in a religious play, but in fact, about a man whose life becomes an "empty shell" only to change from being a troubled soul after losing his hearing to forgetting his bitterness by helping others. While much of the Arliss movies produced at Warners during the early 1930s were extremely popular, most consist of too much dialog and lack of motion to stir up interest. THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD is one of those few that doesn't fall into that category thanks to its fine direction, screenplay and supporting players.
The story opens in Paris where 50-year-old Montgomery Royal (George Arliss), a concert pianist, engaged to his protégé, Grace Blaine (Bette Davis), a girl more than half his age, agrees to give a private backstage recital for a monarch. During a performance, an anarchist, intending to assassinate the King (Andre Luguet), explodes a bomb. While everyone has escaped injury, Monty becomes stone deaf. Monte returns to his New York City apartment where he finds it difficult to adjust to his world of silence. He becomes bitter, hating God to a point of canceling his order for an organ he was going to donate to a church in memory of his deaf and religious mother, Margaret Ruth Royal. Without the ability to hear what's precious to him, his music, and becomes an embittered recluse. Coming to the point of suicide by nearly jumping from the window, his loyal butler Battle (Ivan Simpson) saves him in time from eternal suffering by offering him something to occupy his time. Having been taught lip reading, he takes binoculars to spy on people across the street in Central Park, reads their lips, learning of their troubles, and becoming a sort of guardian angel in helping those in desperate need without revealing himself. Finding he now has a purpose in life, he must face another greater challenge involving the loyalty of young Grace.
The supporting cast consists Donald Cook as Harold Van Adam; Louise Closser Hale as Monty's sister, Florence; Oscar Apfel as the Lip Reading Teacher; Paul Porcasi as the Concert Manager; with Hedda Hopper, Murray Kinnell and the unbilled Ray Milland. Of the supporting players, second billed Violet Heming appears to be the least familiar, yet in a role that nearly surpasses the one given by Bette Davis. Her sophisticated mannerisms come close to that of the better known Verree Teasdale, as a widow who secretly loves Monty, in spite of his engagement to another. The Bette Davis trademark is not too much evident at this point, in fact, having the make-up department giving Davis the Constance Bennett manner. Davis would be paired with Arliss one more time in the rarely seen comedy, THE WORKING MAN (1933).
In the midst of horror melodramas, gangsters and pre-code sex dramas playing in theaters at the height of the great depression, THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD comes as a sort of inspirational drama that offers hope to those who have given up on life, with the moral of the story being, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." Remade by Warners as SINCERELY YOURS (1955) with TV personality Liberace in the role originated by Arliss, whose piano playing served him better than his acting, the latest screen adaptation, that should have improved over the old, didn't, making this 1932 version the one worth viewing. THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD, which has never been distributed to video cassette or DVD, can be seen on Turner Classic Movies. (***)
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