powered by AFI
Bette Davis's film career had been rather lackluster since her debut in 1931, and she was ready to pack it in and return East when she got an unexpected offer to appear with the distinguished actor George Arliss in his next film, The Man Who Played God (1932). According to Davis, she almost blew it by refusing to believe the person on the other end of the phone line was Arliss himself, asking her to come in to speak with him about the part. Luckily, however, she was eventually convinced, kept the appointment, and made her first film at Warner Brothers, the studio that would be her home for the next 17 years and the breeding ground for both her finest work and her reputation for strong-willed, often difficult behavior.
The story, based on the play The Silent Voice, concerned a brilliant concert pianist who is deafened when a would-be assassin throws a bomb into a European palace where the musician is performing for royalty. Depressed over this sudden end to his career, the musician is brought back from a suicide attempt by his loyal fiance and the discovery that he can read lips. He soon turns this skill into a philanthropic pastime, helping complete strangers, before performing one last act of kindness toward his young fiance.
Arliss was already rather old for the role when he made the movie the first time ten years earlier as a silent. And that impression wasn't helped any in this remake by his odd and decidedly non-matinee idol looks and his insistence (despite efforts by Warners make-up artist Perc Westmore) on using the pale foundation and dark lip rouge he had worn in his years on the stage. But at this time, no one was willing to argue with Mr. Arliss. Although his appeal is mystifying to us today and his acting style very outdated and over-the-top, in the early sound years, George Arliss was considered a 'Great Actor,' especially by a studio seeking to add some prestige to its output of low-budget programmers and fast-action gangster films and musicals.
Arliss won an Academy Award in his first sound film as the British prime minister in Disraeli (1929), another picture he had made as a silent in 1921. Apparently, he was right in believing if his public had enjoyed him in some of his best-known silent roles, they would be delighted to hear him perform them anew through the miracle of sound. The same year as his Oscar® for Disraeli, he was also nominated for The Green Goddess (1930), yet another earlier role of his in 1923, and the only instance in Academy history of an actor competing against himself in the same category.
Easy as it may be today to poke fun at this once successful star, not an ugly word was ever spoken about him by Bette Davis. She credited Arliss not only with providing her first big break in films but with showing her the tricks of concentration and character development (and, one suspects, the fearlessness to go over the top) that she would refine over the course of her long career. The New York Times may have dismissed her performance as his young fiance with the criticism that she "often speaks too rapidly for the microphone," but she earned the highest praise and respect from her veteran co-star, who cast her again in The Working Man (1933).
In his 1940 autobiography, Arliss raved about the "deep and vivid creation" Davis contributed to The Man Who Played God. "She startled me because quite unexpectedly I got from her a flash that illuminated mere words and inspired them with passion and emotion. This is the kind of light that cannot be hidden under a bushel, and I am not in the least surprised that Bette Davis is now the most important star on the screen."
One other noteworthy aspect of The Man Who Played God is its innovative use of sound, not surprising since the movie is about hearing and was made by the studio that pioneered talking pictures. In sequences where the deaf musician is reading lips and the character he's "listening" to turns away from him, the sound department erased the dialogue from the sound track so that the audience is only getting those words the Arliss character is getting through reading lips.
Among the smaller roles be on the lookout for future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as Alice Chittendon and future star Ray Milland in an uncredited bit as Eddie.
In addition to Arliss's two versions of The Man Who Played God, the film was made before under the original play title The Silent Voice (1915) and refashioned as a vehicle for Liberace, Sincerely Yours (1955).
Director: John G. Adolfi
Producers: Jack L. Warner, Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Julien Josephson, Maude T. Howell, based on the play The Silent Voice by Jules Eckert Goodman
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Editing: William Holmes
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Original Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Cast: George Arliss (Montgomery Royale), Violet Heming (Mildred Miller), Bette Davis (Grace Blair), Louise Closser Hale (Florence Royale), Donald Cook (Harold Van Adam).
by Rob Nixon