Montgomery “Monty” Royle (George Arliss) is a famous pianist who has made a big name for himself in Paris at the age of 50. He receives dozens of adoring letters from fans every day, is frequently approached for autographs on the street, and is idolized by Grace Blair (Bette Davis), his 25-year-old student.
Grace has fallen in love with the clever and talented Monty, and while initially reluctant to strike up a relationship with her due to their age difference, Monty agrees that if she’s still in love with him in six months, they’ll marry.
Before leaving the country, Monty agrees to give one last special recital at the request of a music-loving King who will disguise himself and enjoy the concert from the audience. Disaster strikes at the concert, compromising Royle’s career as a musician and destroying his faith in God.
The Man Who Played God was directed by John G. Adolfi. The film is a remake of a silent of the same name which also starred George Arliss, released in 1922; the play had first been adapted for the screen in 1915 and would be adapted a fourth time in 1955.
This film marked an early “break out” role for Bette Davis. She was contacted personally by George Arliss for the role of Grace and received acclaim for her screen presence and performance, one reviewer comparing her to Constance Bennett. I was excited to see this film pop up on WatchTCM after reading a bit about it in a few books about Bette, one of my favorite actresses.
Whitney Stine’s Conversations with Bette Davis makes mention of the film as Bette’s first picture at Warners, recalling a conversation in which Bette laughed over the fact that her leading man was 64 years old at the time the film was made. (Her character was 25, and she was just a tad younger).
Stine’s collaborative book with Davis about her career, Mother Goddam, discusses The Man Who Played God in greater detail. Here, the famous story of her role’s origin is shared: Davis was packing to leave Hollywood and head back to New York when she received a call from Arliss. She assumed a joke was being played on her and put on an English accent, responding with snark for a few moments before realizing it really was George Arliss calling her. “He certainly was my first professional father. I owe him the career that emerged,” Davis wrote of Arliss.
She also enjoyed working with him again in The Working Man, writing “It was wonderful to work with Mr. Arliss again. This time, with lots of work behind me, I was far more secure and not as frightened of this great man as I was in The Man Who Played God.”
The Man Who Played God is very well-acted by the entire cast, Davis and Arliss especially. There are a few over-dramatic scenes (a couple of which were over-dramatic enough to evoke chuckles from me), but the film on the whole is quite moving as a result of the cast’s efforts and Monty’s emotional journey/personal growth.
*SPOILERS* Monty struggles with his faith after losing his hearing. He questions God’s existence and says that if God does exist, he hates God for being so cruel. “It’s a wonderful world… for some people,” he says as he looks out his window and sees a distressed couple, the man having just received a bad diagnosis. His cynicism is easy to understand but heartbreaking to see.
Monty decides to “play God” (hence the film’s title) and use his family riches to help people, making a personal transformation in the process of devoting his life to others. It’s touching to see him find purpose again and reclaim his life after the tragedy effectively ends his career, which his whole life had revolved around. *END SPOILERS*
I enjoyed The Man Who Played God despite its exaggerated moments, and would especially recommend it to fans of Bette Davis, for the chance to see her in one of the roles that contributed to making her a star. The score: 3.5/5