Mr. A on the Air Live in THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD

By 1938, George Arliss had distinguished himself in three very successful careers of the performing arts: on the stage, in silent films, and in sound films winning the Best Actor Academy Award for DISRAELI. Now at the age of 70, which in 1938 was regarded as the equivalent of 80 or even 90, Mr. A decided to tackle live network radio broadcasting. In those years before television, just about everybody listened to the radio and given the effects of the Great Depression, this form of free home entertainment was most popular. Although the U.S. population was smaller then, more people tuned in to a popular broadcast than people today who watch TV. One of the most popular radio shows in the late 1930s was the Lux Radio Theater, hosted by no less a film eminence than Cecil B. DeMille. A typical Monday night broadcast of Lux was heard by 30 million to 50 million people, and that was not counting shortwave broadcasting that was beamed around the world and to all ships at sea.

Performing under these circumstances tended to be more of a nerve-wracking ordeal to younger film actors, but to thespians of Mr. A’s vintage performing before live audiences was business as usual. Even the fact that more people would hear him perform on one broadcast than ever saw him during his half-century career was a mere detail. Please click below to travel back in time to Monday, March 21, 1938, to hear C.B. DeMille, Mr. and Mrs A, Ivan Simpson, and Dolores Costello in the radio adaptation of Mr. A’s Warner Bros. hit film of 1932, THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD:


While we’re listening, let’s check out some photos and artwork from the movie version. An unknown Bette Davis played the feminine lead, Grace, solely on Mr. A’s recommendation. It proved to be her breakout film and the public wanted to see more Bette Davis in movies:

On radio the role of Grace was played by Dolores Costello who ironically had been a big star at Warners before either Mr. A or Bette Davis arrived at the studio. Dolores was married to John Barrymore for a few years (they are shown below in WHEN A MAN LOVES from 1927) and by 1938 she was restarting her career. Today Ms. Costello is known mainly as the paternal grandmother of Drew Barrymore:

THE MAN WHO PLAYED GOD tells the story of wealthy concert pianist Montgomery Royle who, at the age of 50, is at the pinnacle of his career. Monty also has a beautiful young protege Grace, who convinces Royle to marry her in six months:

But while he is in Paris, Monty gives an impromptu recital for a visiting monarch that abruptly ends in an assassination attempt against the king. No one is injured except Royle – the bomb blast has destroyed his hearing:

Violet Heming, Bette Davis, Mr. A, Louise Closser Hale, and Andre Luguet as the king

Back in New York City, Monty learns lipreading but becomes increasingly despondent and despises the piano. His longtime servant, Battle (played by longtime Arliss player Ivan Simpson in both the movie and radio broadcast), senses that Royle may attempt to harm himself:

Monty’s sister Florence (played in the film by Louise Closser Hale) is unable to console him or deal with his increasing outbursts:

Sending Battle out of the room on a pretext, Monty attempts to leap to his death:

Monty tries out his lipreading abilities with a pair of binoculars, and “eavesdrops” on the people across the street in Central Park. He cynically observes a young man’s plight of lacking a $1,000 for a medical treatment that would save his life. Since God doesn’t seem to want to help the young man, Royle decides that he will by anonymously sending Battle down to give him the needed money. But Monty soon realizes that God may be having the last laugh because without his affliction, Monty would not have been in a position to save the man’s life.

An original color lobby card from the lost 1922 version that Mr. A made during the silent film era:

This sudden burst of cynical philanthropy soon develops into a “business” as Royle searches for new “customers” in need so that he can continue to “play God.” But one day he spys his fiance Grace in the park telling a young man that she feels duty-bound to go through with her marriage to Royle and so they must never see each other again. Monty is stunned and quietly asks himself, “I wonder what God would do in a case like this.”

The story’s resolution is both touching and believable as Royle learns that it’s not so easy to behave like God. Having abandoned performing because he can no longer enjoy the music, he decides to play again because other people can enjoy it, including The King:

Montgomery Royle rages against God – a glass slide from the 1922 silent version:

Poster art for the 1932 talkie version:

A night out at the local movie house:

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