SPOTLIGHT: Dramatic Pre-Code Davis (I)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the wild Bette Davis (1908-1989). Though this diva of the silver screen’s best and most well-known work came in the late ’30s and ’40s after the enforcement of the Production Code, Davis made severable notable Pre-Codes in her earlier career. We’ll be covering three of them in this series. (I won’t be covering 1934’s Of Human Bondage, which is in the public domain, as part of this series. That will likely come at a later date.)

 

The Man Who Played God (1932)

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After losing his hearing, a musician uses lip-reading to help others. Starring George Arliss, Violet Heming, and Bette Davis. Based on the play by Jules Eckert Goodman. From the short story by Governeur Morris. Adaptation by Julian Josephson and Maude Howell. Directed by John G. Adolfi.  

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Bette Davis later credited both this film and George Arliss for launching her career, after nearly two unfortunate years spent playing in C-list Universal flicks. It was her performance in this film that inspired Jack Warner to give Davis a contract with Warner Brothers, where she would remain for almost 18 years. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; the star of this picture is George Arliss, who also headlined in the 1922 silent screen adaptation of this 1914 play. A gentle piece, this film’s a sleeper — it ends up being much better than you’d expect, with layers of meaning that will impress even the casual film lover.

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“Famous pianist Montgomery Royle is the toast of Paris. He is idolized by his student, twenty-five-year-old Grace Blair, who professes her love for him. He agrees that if she still loves him in six months, he will marry her. At the special request of a king, Monty agrees to give an additional recital, where an anarchist’s bomb, meant for the king, destroys Monty’s hearing, which is already weakened by a hereditary illness. After their return to New York, Grace begs Monty to continue playing, but he refuses, railing against God for making him deaf. Finally, his sister Florence convinces him to learn lip reading. An old friend, Mildred Miller, suggests that perhaps this is God’s first test of Monty’s strength. Grace leaves for a visit to Santa Barbara, planning to marry Monty on her return. Completely distraught, Monty tries to jump from his apartment window, but is stopped by his butler, Battle. Trying to interest Monty in the life surrounding him, Battle hands him a pair of binoculars, which Monty uses to read the lips of people walking through Central Park below his window.

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“He learns that a young couple are in trouble because the man has tuberculosis and they do not have enough money for his cure. Monty decides to help them and sends Battle down to offer them the needed money. Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, Grace has fallen in love with Harold Van Adam, a young man her own age, but she stubbornly intends to go ahead with her plan to marry Monty. During Grace’s absence, Monty has regained his faith through his efforts to help the people he sees below. While demonstrating his abilities to Mildred one afternoon, Grace, who has returned from her trip, walks beneath the window with Harold. By reading her lips, Monty learns of her love for Harold, and when she arrives upstairs, he sends her away. At peace, Monty visits the church to examine the organ he has donated. Mildred encourages him to play and he discovers that he can have his music after all.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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My loyal readers know that as a writer, I often place great stock in a film’s overall success on the strength of both its story and its script. So I am happy to confirm that the picture is a success on both fronts. The script keeps the characters evolving while the action never settles down enough to bore its audience. As for the premise — WOW — what a truly original story! A classical musician loses his hearing, and after a crisis of faith, learns to read lips, turning his newfound skill into philanthropy: anonymously helping strangers whom he spies in the neighboring park. Added to this is a young woman who has promised herself to the musician, only to fall for another while vacationing. It’s a finely crafted story that takes many surprising beats without verging into melodrama.

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Thematically, I was most drawn to the concept of “playing God” and the religious questioning imposed by the main character. After several scenes of very powerful dialogue in which Arliss denounces religion (this is Pre-Code, remember!), our protagonist turns hero as he becomes a God-like figure, saving those whom the other God has seemingly damned. But with this power comes the knowledge of things that man shouldn’t know — in this case, the fact that Davis’ heart belongs to another, and she’s sacrificing her happiness for his. It’s actually quite powerful when he lets her go, and the central character’s arc of true understanding, though not flaunted or telegraphed throughout the film (as you almost expect it to be), becomes a wonderful surprise — enriching the film with a layer of meaning absent from most other Pre-Codes. It’s tremendously successful, producing some truly quite remarkable drama.

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So while the content gets high marks, how are the performances? Well, this is entirely a George Arliss vehicle, and if you’re an Arliss fan, you’ll know what to expect. For those who aren’t or have yet to see him in a picture, Arliss is a strange looking elderly gentleman who plays 85% of the film with quiet sincerity, and is capable, on his protracted (and mildly grotesque) face, of illustrating almost unbelievably nuanced feeling with deep honesty that may startle even the prepared viewer. Unfortunately, he spends several scenes in a heightened and melodramatic mode that doesn’t fit organically within the context. It’s jarring, and keeps his performance from perfection. However, this is really my only complaint — aside from the blandness of the woman with whom he DOES end up — and perhaps if you’re prepared for the histrionics, it doesn’t come across as inappropriate. (In fact, it MAY even be fitting — it just seems so out-of-place here with the rest of his persona.)

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Davis, meanwhile, shows spark in her role of the good girl who idolizes Arliss and intends to keep good on her promise to him, even if it means betraying her heart. (There really are no villains here.) I was ready to write of her performance as merely capable (largely because the script doesn’t give her much), until I saw the final scene between the two, where both performers give and take with true awareness, which plays so painfully natural that you can see beyond a shadow of a doubt why Warner signed her to a contract. Wow. Both of them — such an unlikely pair — but WOW.

This film really impressed me, and largely this is because I wasn’t expecting it to be as complex as it is. And in fact, it really doesn’t start out looking like a winner, yet because the running time is so short (80 minutes), the wait is an easy one. Sit through it all — it’s worth it. I adore this film. Very surprised. You may be too.

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Come back next Friday for more Davis! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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