“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!!
“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"
“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!
“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...