Monday, August 24, 2015

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'The Man Who Played God' (1932)

The Man Who Played God is the second Bette Davis movie I've seen that stars George Arliss, and in both cases he comes off as smarmy and creepy when he's supposed to be noble and paternal. In The Working Man, he's condescending and villainous even though he's the ostensible hero, and in The Man Who Played God he's alternately pompous, self-pitying and condescending once again, playing a piano virtuoso who loses his hearing after a freak accident. Gaunt and patrician, Arliss isn't exactly convincing as a passionate artist, although in a weird way that works for the character, who is more of a skilled craftsman than someone trying to express himself. After his hearing goes, friends try to comfort him with the fact that Beethoven was deaf, but Arliss' Monty Royle dismisses the notion that he might write music like Beethoven. All he wants to do is play other people's music.

Well, that and marry Grace Blair (Davis), the much younger former student who's rather pathologically smitten with him. At the beginning of the movie Grace practically strongarms him into agreeing to marry her, since he refuses to see her as anything other than an immature child. Despite their complete lack of chemistry or anything resembling romance, she's determined to become his wife, and is even more determined after he loses his hearing and becomes a morose shut-in. Davis does her best to project attraction and love for a man who's 40 years her senior (and would play her surrogate father a year later in The Working Man), but she's fighting a losing battle, and Grace's motivations never really make much sense. Davis looks beautiful as Grace, which only makes it sillier to watch her moon over the corpse-like Arliss.

The last third or so of the movie shifts focus to the action referred to in the title, after Monty learns to read lips to compensate for his deafness. He discovers that he can use binoculars to read the lips of people across from his lavish apartment overlooking Central Park, and he finds a renewed appreciation for life in eavesdropping on people's private business and then anonymously meddling to make their lives better. Although he's doing good, he takes a sort of perverse pleasure in "playing God" to the less fortunate (in addition to being a brilliant pianist, Monty is also a fabulously wealthy heir). I guess this is meant to be a redemptive story about the power of faith, but it ends up being more about the power of entitlement. Even the resolution of Monty and Grace's courtship hinges on his pathological eavesdropping, when he discovers that she has a more age-appropriate love interest. The absurdly self-sacrificing Grace is determined to marry Monty out of some misguided sense of duty, but, rich-old-guy saint that he is, he lets her off the hook. Monty ends the movie rejuvenated by his role as a benevolent busybody and able to finally play music again, but, like the movie as a whole, it doesn't feel like much of a triumph.

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