Thursday, September 22, 2011

Rembering Paul Muni...

Sept 22nd, 1895 - Aug 25th, 1967

My next few posts will be dedicated to this extraordinary artist...

“If I don’t have the chance to play it, I’ll die. And for me, to get that feeling, a screenplay has to have more than a role it has to have an IDEA!” Paul Muni

Muni Weisenfreund made his stage debut at age 12 playing an 80 year old man in a skit with his parents who were both show biz veterans. He was hooked and lost all interest in practicing his violin, which did not please his father at all! After a time Muni played parts regularly, always popular and always trying new makeup and beards, he loved changing himself into other characters. Young Muni also loved to go rollerskating outside the theater between shows but didn’t have time to get out of and back into makeup and costume again and so apparently he often caused quite a stir when bystanders would see this very energetic 80 year old man whiz by on roller skates!
His early days in show business were a struggle. He spent several years in Yiddish theater then finally had his Broadway and English speaking debut in “We Americans” in 1926. Muni was so convincing in his role of an old man that one critic wrote: “What an outrage that this old man should have spent a lifetime waiting for his chance to appear on broadway!" In the play “Four Walls” 1927, Muni played a man his own age and was quite terrified to be out on that stage without a beard or fake puttynose to hide behind, but opening night he received a standing ovation and the next day his name was above the title in all newspaper ads and the theater marquee...MUNYA had arrived!!

With Muni making a name for himself on the stage it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came knocking, especially as it was during this time that the invasion of the talkies had begun. Muni made his film debut at Fox Studios in “The Valiant” 1929 with Marguerite Churchill. He received the 1st of his 6 Oscar nominations for best actor but lost out to Warner Baxter. It was at Fox that he was, much to his chagrin, given the name Paul Muni. He was often called “The New Lon Chaney” something he resented but with due respect

“I guess its flattery when well-intentioned people call me a young Chaney. I don’t mean to minimize his art, he’s a master. But we choose our characters differently. Chaney likes to enact the grotesque. I take my characters from the street, real types everyone recognizes. I’ve been playing these characters on stage for nearly 20 years."

Muni’s next film “Seven Faces” had him playing a total of 7 different characters and was designed to capitalize on his mastery of makeup and characterizations but in Muni’s own words it just meant that “I can be 7 times as bad as usual”. He played Don Juan, Napoleon, Franz Schubert and even a Negro boxer! thanks in no small part to the market crash of 29 the film did not fare well. Fox wanted him to play a supporting role in his next film so he decided to leave Hollywood all together and go back to New York. He appeared in a number of plays before receiving a visit from a certain mister Howard Hawks...

"It may be too early to salute Mr Muni as one of the giants of his profession. But as this notice is being written 15 or 20 minutes after his concluding scene, its difficult to think of anything in the drama beyond Mr. Muni's capabilities" - excerpted from a New York Times review by Brooks Atkison after seeing Muni on stage in "This One Man"

Hawks was in new York looking to cast his next picture “Scarface”. Muni liked Hawks but felt he wasn’t the right man for the role. Hawks asked him to make a test and it was that test that convinced Muni he could play the character. Muni admired Hawks’ no-nonsense approach- “I’m a storyteller- that’s the chief function of a director. And they’re moving pictures, lets make ‘em move!” He also admired Ben Hechts hard-boiled screenplay. He was ready to sign but producer Howard Hughes wanted him to fly out to Hollywood and make 2 more tests. Muni refused saying “I’ve got a voice and I’ve got a face and if Mr. Hughes doesn’t know I can act by now he’ll never know. If I never do another picture I wont make another test!”

Obviously he made the picture and on his terms. The reviews were raves, the New York Times saying “The picture is dominated by Mr Muni’s virile and vehement acting”. Hard to believe but Scarface did not receive a single Academy award nomination, most likely due to the fact that Hughes was an independent producer and also had caused quite a ruckus with the censorship board with his film. On Dec 26th 1932 Muni received a postal telegraph which read:

“Dear Paul Muni, May I congratulate you on your very great picture at the Strand I have never seen a finer performance – Noel Coward”

Scarface is a hell of a picture and why not? it has everything going for it! Great script, incredible cast, fantastic visuals and editing and the sure handed direction of the master storyteller Howard Hawks, but Muni takes charge front and center with his high voltage performance. I have never been able to sit through Brian DePalma’s god-awful remake tho I do admire Pacino’s performance. It simply cant hold a candle to the original!
Up next for Muni was the play “Counselor at Law” by Elmer Rice. He caused a sensation and it turned out to be the longest running play of the 1931-32 season. Just around the corner at the Strand, Scarface, after sitting on the shelf for year waiting for victory over the censorship boards, was doing sell-out business, and all this despite the depression!.. much to his own surprise, Muni was now a superstar!

When Warner Bros. obtained the rights for the explosive story that would eventually become “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, director Mervyn LeRoy immediately took the train to NY to see Muni in Counsellor and wired back: THIS IS OUR MAN! They wanted him for the standard 7 year contract but he refused before he even read the script! Eventually he signed on for 3 films at $50,000 a piece. Muni’s preperation for Chain Gang was intense and extensive, reading everything he could on Robert Burns, the real life character portrayed in the film and also meeting with him, studying how he walked, talked and breathed. This would all be standard practice for the Method actors that came into prominence in the 1950’s but at this point in time Muni’s preparation work was quite unusual for a hollywood film actor!

“I think he is one of the really great actors of this century, the reason? He made the words his own. I believed them when he spoke them. I think that was his great gift” – Screenwriter Sheridan Gibney

Chain Gang is my fave Paul Muni film, and has been a fave film overall since I was in my teens. It is one of the most brutally unflinching, uncompromising and jarring films to watch and that is in no small way due to Muni’s unforgettable performance. It is unfathomable to me that he did not win the academy Award that year for best actor and equally unfathomable that Chain Gang did not win best picture. It is simply one of THE great Hollywood films, period!

Next up was “The World Changes” again with director Mervyn LeRoy. I had the pleasure of viewing this film for the first time just a few weeks ago and enjoyed it very much. It is quite similar to Cimmaron but much better in my opinion. It was the first time Muni played a character from youth to old age onscreen and its quite an amazing transformation. Overall the film seems to fall short of its grand aspirations but its still very watchable and has a fine cast.

He then appeared in the comedy “Hi Nellie!”. By all accounts it's considered a failure, but I have yet to see this picture so I can offer no opinion other than that, failure or not, I really want to see it!

Muni renewed a contract with Warner bros, an unprecedented agreement for an actor during that period...he would make 2 films a year, shot in the May to October periods leaving him free for stage work in the fall and winter. Limited press interviews and approval of story outlines was also part of the deal, all in all he would get $100,000 a picture, twice a year, for 7 years.

“Get some writers cooking on biographical ideas for Muni. Anything but Beethoven. Nobody wants to see a movie about a blind composer” – Jack Warner

To be continued...


Irene Palfy said...

Oh - Great post! Love Paul Muni! Thank you for sharing this!!

Francy Flicks said...

Well, you know from reading my blog that I LOVE Paul and his acting, as well. I really believe he is underrated, so I am so happy to read your incredible post about him! He really set the standard for the rest of the great film actors of the 20th century, and I don't think he's dated at all. Every time I watch a new film of his, he completely blows me away. He becomes every single character he plays.

My favorite part of "Chain Gang" has to be the end when he backs into the darkness and says, "I steal!" It's one of the best endings ever for me, and I love that the way it was shot supposedly came about due to (if I remember correctly) a power outage at the studio before filming.

Can't wait for the rest of the series!!