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The Man Who Played God (1932) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

monty grace arliss mildred

Principal social themes: disabilities, suicide/depression

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: George Arliss, Bette Davis, Violet Heming, Oscar Apfel, Andre Luguet, Louise Closser Hale, Ivan Simpson, Donald Cook, Charles Evans, Murray Kinnell, Hedda Hopper, Ray Milland. Written by Julien Josephson and Maude T. Howell based on the play The Silent Voice by Jules Eckert Goodman and the original short story by Gouverneur Morris. Cinematography by James Van Trees. Edited by William Holmes. Music by Leo Forbstein. Produced by Jack Warner and Darryl F. Zanuck. Directed by John G. Adolfi. B&W. 81 minutes.


George Arliss (1868–1946) was a well-known actor from the Victorian era who managed to transfer his popularity to motion pictures. One of his most popular stage vehicles was the role of Montgomery Royle, a piano virtuoso who goes deaf. Arliss made a silent version of the story in 1922 and undertook this sound remake ten years later. The Man Who Played God was one of the first screen treatments to deal realistically with the development of a disability and the efforts of rehabilitation.


Montgomery Royle is one of the world’s leading classical pianists. He is loved by two women, his young protégée Grace Adair (Bette Davis) and by the attractive widow Mildred Miller (Violet Heming). When Grace proposes to Monty, he says he is too old for her, but agrees to marry her if she feels the same way in six months. After a concert in Paris, Monty gives a private recital for a visiting king. Terrorists set off a bomb hoping to kill the monarch, but he is unharmed. Monty, however, becomes deaf because of the blast.

Monty returns to his New York penthouse overlooking Central Park and becomes a hermit, brooding over his lost hearing. His only human contact is with his sister, his manservant Battle, and Grace, who visits him daily. He becomes even more despondent when Grace reminds him that Beethoven also became deaf. His doctor suggests that Monty learn lip reading, and in time he becomes very proficient at it. His mood, however, continues to worsen, and he even loses his belief in God. Grace continues to insist that Monty marry her, and he agrees. But when she leaves for a holiday in California, Monty decides to commit suicide by leaping from the window. Battle confronts him and talks him off the ledge. He hands Monty binoculars and implores him to look at the beauty of nature in the park. Quite by accident, Monty begins to lip read the conversations of people sitting on a park bench. He becomes intrigued by their problems, and tries to find ways to help them. A sick young man tells his girlfriend that he has been told he will die unless he takes a rest cure in a warm, dry climate, a treatment he cannot afford. The couple start to pray. Monty sends Battle down to them with a note offering to pay for the cure, but keeping his name secret. Monty gets a new lease on life by eavesdropping on others and “playing God” to help solve their problems. When Mildred visits Monty, she is surprised by how happy he has become.

A strange turn of events happens when he spots Grace in the park with a young man. He learns that they are in love, but Grace feels obligated to marry Monty. When she arrives for a visit, Monty releases her from their engagement. He then fulfills an old promise to donate a new organ in memory of his mother at the church she used to attend. Mildred, now free to express her love to Monty, meets him at the church and he plays a hymn on the organ.


Arliss is an actor of the old school, with every gesture and every tremor of his voice closely regulated, reflecting his years of experience on the stage. However, he is very entertaining to watch. Arliss reportedly did months of study on deafness for his portrayal of Montgomery Royle, and his careful preparation is apparent in his reading. A close study reflects how the script follows the traditional pattern of an individual’s reaction to a traumatic disability—from denial, withdrawal, and despair to gradual acceptance. Arliss was known to “chew the scenery” on occasion, yet his anguish and attempt to commit suicide is very convincing.

The Man Who Played God emphasizes another issue concerning disabilities, how it affects the people around the handicapped individual. Grace is prepared to sacrifice her own happiness for him. Mildred and Monty’s sister are always walking on eggs in their relations with him. Only Battle attempts to treat Monty in a normal fashion. The Man Who Played God was updated in 1955 as a vehicle for Liberace in Sincerely Yours , an unsuccessful and critically panned effort. Two years later, Boris Karloff starred in a far more successful treatment for television on Lux Video Theater .

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