Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Man Who Played God (1932)

A few weeks back I had the chance to record The Man Who Played God when it showed up on TCM. It's apparently available from the Warner Archive (more on that later), so I feel OK doing a full-length post on the film.

George Arliss as Montgomery Royle, a prominent pianist who is currently performing in Paris. He's got a lot of adoring fans, to the point that his sister Florence (Louise Closser Hale) has to deal with all the letters and flowers as his secretary. Among his two biggest fans would be the widow Mildred (Violet Heming) who thinks Montgomery should settle down, and somebody like her would be a good woman to do it with; and Grace (Bette Davis). Grace has been Montgomery's student, and she has a crush on him even though he's more than twice her age. Still, he says to her to give the relationship six months and, if she still holds a flame for him, then he'll marry her.

Meanwhile, back to that concert. Montgomery informs everybody that he heard that there's a European king who plans to be in attendance incognito -- and no, he's not going to say which country's king it is. That's a good thing, because it's the king of one of those countries that likes to have revolutions of the sort that took place from time to time in the Hollywood movies of the day. There are, in fact, terrorists waiting for the king to show up at the concert hall so that they can assassinate him. Except it turns out that the king's car develops mechanical problems, leading to his missing the entire concert! But he shows up at the after-show party, and gets Montgomery to play something for him. Unfortunately those terrorists have spotted the king, for they throw a bomb just outside the window of the room where everybody is enjoying themselves. The king is OK, but the shock from the blast destroys Montgomery's eardrums or something, because the result is that he winds up stone deaf.

What's a deaf pianist to do? Well, Montgomery doesn't want to live life any longer even though he's got a lot of money, a nice overlooking Central Park, and a lot of friends. What good is life without music? And why would any God do a thing like this to him? So Montgomery goes out on the balcony and plans to jump off! Thankfully, his butler stops him, and gives him the idea to learn how to read lips.

Montgomery becomes a very adept lip reader. So adept, in fact, that he's able to take a pair of binoculars and look down into the park below and watch the people sitting on the benches there. It's a pretty darn powerful pair of binoculars, because he's able to read the lips of the people in the park which is how he learns about their problems. And Montgomery decides that he's got a new mission in life, which is to help those poor people down there with their problems.

The only thing is, it turns out that one of those people is Grace. She spent the months after the bombing out in California with Harold (Donald Cook) and his smart set friends. Harold has always loved Grace, and thinks that somebody like himself would be more appropriate for Grace than an old man like Montgomery; never mind the fact that Montgomery is now deaf. And during those months out in California, Grace comes to realize that she loves Harold. Oh, she still likes Montgomery since he's such a nice man, but she doesn't have the feelings for him that she used to. But she feels she has to go through with the marriage to Montgomery, because to let him down would break his heart and kill him.

It's all reasonably interesting stuff. George Arliss is fun to watch as always, brightening up pretty much every movie that I've seen him in, even something like this that should be melodramatic piffle but isn't. (Compare it to something like Magnificent Obsession.) This was near the beginning of Bette Davis' career, and the chance to work with Arliss, who was a fairly big star at the time, gave her an opportunity at her first big role. (This even though she's credited behind Heming). Bette hasn't yet become the Bette of Now, Voyager and other histrionic roles, and she shows why she would ultimately become a legendary actress. The rest of the cast is serviceable, but it's Arliss especially, and to a lesser extent Davis, that you watch this movie for.

It's a bit surprising that even with the presence of Bette Davis and an early Best Actor Oscar winner, this movie isn't very well known. It has been released to DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive, but oddly, IMDb suggests you can't get it at Amazon. However, it is available from the TCM Shop, as well as slightly less pricey (for the time being) from the Warner Bros. shop. I wonder if Amazon has lost the rights to Warner Archive DVDs?

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