The Man Who Played God (1932 film)

The Man Who Played God

Theatrical release poster
Directed by John G. Adolfi
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by
Based on

The Silent Voice
by Jules Eckert Goodman and

"The Man Who Played God"
by Gouverneur Morris
Music by Leo F. Forbstein
Cinematography James Van Trees
Edited by William Holmes
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • February 20, 1932 (1932-02-20)
Running time
80 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $546,000[1][lower-alpha 1]
Box office $835,000[1]

The Man Who Played God is a 1932 American Pre-Code drama film directed by John G. Adolfi and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. George Arliss stars as a concert pianist embittered by the loss of his hearing who eventually finds redemption in helping others; it also features a then little-known Bette Davis as the much younger woman in love with the protagonist.

Warner Bros. promoted the film as an example that studios could produce motion pictures of social and moral value without the oversight of non-industry agents. It was modestly successful at the box office and was among Arliss' most popular films.

The film was a remake of a 1922 silent film of the same name, also starring Arliss, ultimately based on a 1912 short story by Gouverneur Morris. In 1955 it was again revived as Sincerely Yours with Liberace.


While giving a private performance for a visiting monarch, concert pianist Montgomery Royle is deafened when a bomb is detonated in an attempt to assassinate the foreign ruler. With his career over as a result of his injury, Royle returns to New York City with his sister Florence, close friend Mildred Miller, and considerably younger fiancée Grace Blair.

After abandoning thoughts of suicide, Montgomery discovers he can lip read, and he spends his days observing people in Central Park from his apartment window. As he learns of people's problems, he tries to help them anonymously. He becomes absorbed in his game of "playing God" but his actions are without sincerity.

One day Montgomery witnesses a conversation between Grace and Harold Van Adam, during which she tells the young man she loves him but cannot leave Montgomery because of his handicap. Moved by the generosity of her sacrifice, Montgomery confronts her and ends their engagement, allowing her to follow her heart.

Montgomery continues to act as a philanthropist, but his attitude is changed and his motives become altruistic. He draws closer to Mildred, who always has loved him, and the two find happiness in their developing relationship.


Warners had made a silent version of The Man Who Played God in 1922, based on the 1914 play The Silent Voice by Jules Eckert Goodman, who adapted it from a story by Gouverneur Morris published in Cosmopolitan in 1912.[2] For the 1932 film, a fresh adaptation was worked up by Julien Josephson and Maude T. Howell. Arliss also made some contributions to the script for which he was paid, though not credited.[1]:122

In September 1931, disappointed with the way her Hollywood career had failed to progress, Bette Davis was packing to return to New York when George Arliss called and invited her to discuss the role of Grace Blair with him. Certain the caller was a prankster, Davis later recalled, "I replied in an imitative English accent" and told him "Of course, Mr. Arliss. How jolly decent of you." The actor finally convinced Davis it really was he on the phone and she responded she would meet him immediately. "My excitement and joy were indescribable ... An Arliss film was a prestige film – a far cry from The Menace, and yet Murray Kinnell of The Menace cast had suggested me for the part ... Out of all bad comes some good. I have always believed this."[3][4]

At age sixty-three, more than ten years older than the character, Arliss knew he was too old for the role and was concerned the age difference between him and the actress cast as Grace Blair would be ridiculous unless she were played by someone who could convey both love and hero worship for his character. After interviewing many young women, he felt Davis was the one most capable of handling the part. He sent her to studio makeup artist Perc Westmore, who suggested bleached blonde hair would heighten her screen appearance. "He was right. In The Man Who Played God – for the first time – I really looked like myself. It was for me a new lease on life." The two became close friends, and Westmore went on to make up Davis in more than two dozen films.[3]

After seeing a rough cut of the film, Jack L. Warner signed Davis to a five-year contract, starting at $400 per week. She would remain with Warner Bros. for the next eighteen years, and Davis was beholden to Arliss for the rest of her life, crediting him for "the career that finally emerged".[3] Of Davis, Arliss wrote in his 1940 biography, My Ten Years in the Studios, "I did not expect anything except a nice little performance. But when we rehearsed, she startled me; the nice little part became a deep and vivid creation, and I felt rather humbled that this young girl had been able to discover and portray something that my imagination had failed to conceive ... I am not surprised that Bette Davis is now the most important star on the screen."[3]

Musical pieces heard in the film include Fantaisie-Impromptu by Frédéric Chopin, Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven, and Onward, Christian Soldiers by Arthur Sullivan.

Cast (in credits order)


The Man Who Played God was initially intended as a roadshow release for 1932. Warners reportedly changed tactics when the film received positive feedback from the so-called Hays organization; the studio decided it would be a timely example that motion pictures could be wholesome entertainment.[lower-alpha 2] Accordingly, after opening in brief special engagements in Los Angeles and New York on February 9 and 10 respectively, the film went into general release on February 20.[5][6]

It was modestly successful at the box office and made a profit for the studio.[1]:128 It became one of Arliss' most popular films.[1]:120

In England, censors objected to the picture's title and it was released as The Silent Voice.[7]

Critical reception

Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times opined, "It is a neatly conceived story as it comes to the screen, with effervescent cheer in the introductory sequences, then a period of melancholy, and finally episodes of thankfulness and happiness ... and while it seems a little lethargic at times, it has such a genuinely gentle and appealing touch that one would not wish it to be told any faster." He thought "Mr. Arliss delivers another of his effective and meticulous portrayals" but felt Davis "often speaks too rapidly".[8][lower-alpha 3]

Martin Quigley, the trade paper publisher and Hays office insider, gave the film an enthusiastic recommendation in his Motion Picture Herald and two of his staff did the same.[9] The Film Daily review was also uniformly positive, focusing on Arliss' performance, and went so far as to say "[the picture] merits all the plugging exhibitors can give it".[10]

Not all reviewers praised the film. Variety critic "Rush." thought that the short story was overextended as an 80-minute film: "... a picture which has everything in the way of garnishment, but little substance to be garnished." He found the Arliss and Davis portrayal of May–December romance unconvincing and only singled out Heming for praise, noting the "quiet force" of her performance.[11] The review in Hollywood Reporter was titled "Clean, Wholesome, and Dull".[12]


The film was itself a retooling of the 1922 silent movie of the same name. The most evident difference between these two was that the earlier film finished with the protagonist's hearing restored, a plot contrivance that garnered negative reviews and was ditched in the 1932 version.[1]:122 Arliss adapted the screenplay to radio in 1938 reprising his role as Royle.[1]:120 A radio version starring Raymond Massey was also presented on Philip Morris Playhouse April 17, 1942.[13] In 1955 Warners revised the story again as Sincerely Yours with Liberace in the lead as a pianist whose hearing comes and goes, a famously unsuccessful version.[1]:128


  1. Combined production and distribution costs
  2. According to a statement released by Warners, even other "industry leaders" supported the film and hoped it would "go a long way towards silencing the harping criticisms of would-be reformers".[5]
  3. Davis agreed. "It was always difficult for me to speak slowly on or off the screen ... William Wyler, when he directed me in Jezebel, was constantly making me slow down."[3]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Fells, Robert M. (2004). "The Man Who Played God". George Arliss: The Man who Played God. Scarecrow Press. pp. 119–131. ISBN 978-0-8108-5160-3.
  2. "The Man Who Played God (1932) – Screenplay Info". Turner Classic Movies Database. Retrieved 2016-03-18.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 Stine, Whitney; Davis, Bette (1974). Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. Hawthorn Books. pp. 18–32. ISBN 0-8015-5184-6.
  4. Chandler, Charlotte (2006). The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography. Simon & Schuster. pp. 73–75. ISBN 0-7432-6208-5.
  5. 1 2 "To Release Arliss Film Immediately". Motion Picture Herald. 106 (6): 18. February 6, 1932 via Internet Archive.
  6. "Call Off Roadshowings of New Arliss Picture". The Film Daily. 58 (29): 1. February 4, 1932 via Internet Archive.
  7. "'The Man Who Played God'; The New George Arliss Picture". The West Australian. October 21, 1932. p. 2 via Trove.
  8. Hall, Mordaunt (February 11, 1932). "The Man Who Played God". Movies. New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-25.
  9. Quigley, Martin (February 13, 1932). "The Man Who Played God". Motion Picture Herald. 106 (7): 11 via Internet Archive.. In the same issue: Ramsaye, Terry, "An Impressive Warner Achievement" (p. 10); and McGoldrick, Rita C., "Your Public: 'The Man Who Played God'" (p. 28).
  10. "George Arliss in 'The Man Who Played God'". The Film Daily. 58 (37): 10. February 14, 1932 via Internet Archive.
  11. Greason, Alfred "Rush." (February 16, 1932). "The Man Who Played God". Film Reviews. Variety. 105 (10): 24 via Internet Archive.
  12. Doherty, Thomas Patrick (2013). Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930–1934. Columbia University Press. p. 106. ISBN 978-0-231-50012-8.
  13. "The Short and Long of Radio". The Evening News (Harrisburg). April 17, 1942. p. 16. Retrieved 2015-08-01 via
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