Oct 9, 2014

On DVD: Bette Davis Breaks out in The Man Who Played God (1932)

After an unsatisfying six film run with Universal Studios, 22-year-old Bette Davis thought she was through in Hollywood. Her contract had not been renewed by the studio, and she was preparing to return to New York, and the stage, when she received an offer to play opposite the much-respected George Arliss in, The Man Who Played God (1932). Davis' breakthrough role in this film set her on the road to movie stardom. Now her sparkling performance can be enjoyed in a sharp new DVD from Warner Archive.

As a teenage classic movie geek, I would constantly watch the television documentary Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano (1983). I'd recorded it from public television. I'm astonished the tape didn't break from overplaying.

Davis was my true introduction to old movies. Before her there had been flickers of interest, but nothing like the jolt I felt watching her for the first time in Dark Victory (1939). I idolized her like no other actress. I sobbed when she died in 1989.

One of the best things about the documentary is that it features extensive interviews with Davis. Early on, she tells the story of how Arliss called her to ask if she might come to Warner Bros. studios to interview for the part. She thought the elegant-voiced Englishman was a friend playing a joke. It took him several minutes to convince her he was indeed the George Arliss.

Fortunately, Arliss persisted and Davis caught on. That interview at Warner Bros. won her both the role and a start at the studio that would make her a star.

Arliss had had a long association with The Man Who Played God, first on Broadway in 1914 as the play The Silent Voice, and then in 1922 as a silent. The 64-year-old actor was revered in Hollywood, so much so that he was billed as Mr. George Arliss.

Today, it can be difficult to understand why Arliss was so adored. While his Academy Award-winning performance in Disraeli (1929) charmed me more than I expected, in that film, and in this one, I've felt for the most part that his appeal is not quite timeless. There's something about his dark lipstick and the way his upturned nostrils photograph that unsettles me. It's also hard to love a guy who seems so amused by himself when you cannot figure out why.

I don't think Arliss' appeal has been totally lost to the ages though. He has presence, and he is sympathetic in his role as a famous pianist who loses his hearing. Pursued by Davis, who is young enough to be his daughter if not granddaughter, he struggles through a life without music. The pianist learns to read lips, and eventually finds joy playing philanthropist to the people in the park below that he spies on with his binoculars.

In the meantime, Davis' character falls in love with a man closer to her own age, though she attempts to reject him out of loyalty to Arliss. The old pianist happens to catch one of their conversations with his binoculars though, and instead of being irritated--or maybe even a little creeped out that he's been spying on her, she is relieved that he understands her struggle.

The movie moves along at a good clip, with a plot just novel enough to keep it interesting and lots of sharp supporting performances. It's Davis that makes it special though. Without her, it would simply be a charming early sound flick. Seeing a screen legend being born makes it a lot more fun. She's not quite the Bette Davis yet, but the electricity is there, and within a couple of years her career would really catch fire.

Here's the clip from Bette Davis: A Basically Benevolent Volcano (1983) where Davis talks about her phone conversation with Arliss. The story begins at about 5:45:

The notorious box office failure Sincerely Yours (1955), starring Liberace in his only feature film lead, is a remake of The Man Who Played God. There's not much in common between the two, aside from the plot, but I had a lot of fun watching this odd misfire. The film is currently streaming at Warner Archive Instant.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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