best film: Scarface with Hawks behind the helm is slightly superior to I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang. The opening of Hawks’ Scarface is so stylistically audacious and memorable. It sticks with you. Hawks’ can’t keep that up throughout the film (very few films can) but it’s strong enough and Muni is there to do much of the heavy lifting. This is not a top 100 all-time film though (even if it’s far superior to the rest of the 30’s gangster classics like Little Caesar and Public Enemy) so this “best film” category is a weakness for Muni as we approach the top 50 actors of all-time on this countdown.
best performance: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang edges out Scarface for me but they are essentially 1 and 1A. In both films Muni plays a fugitive but they characters almost couldn’t be more different. Muni here for once plays an everyman (he’s usually playing historical figures and larger than life figures) and there’s such pathos and sympathy here as James Allen- a man who can’t catch a break up against a ruthless system and poor circumstance.
stylistic innovations/traits: Muni was the original chameleon. It’s a proud film lineage (technically it starts with Lon Chaney but Chaney was behind so many masks it’s hard to give him too much credit). Muni didn’t need a mask. With a little makeup and tremendous range he’s able to play different nationalities and characters so effortlessly. He’s a gangster, an inventor, an everyman and a world leader. He could do ruthlessness equal to how he could do compassion. Certainly this range has been picked up by modern day chameleons like PSH, Daniel Day Lewis and Gary Oldman. Muni only had 23 film credits (with an astounding five academy award nominations). Seven of those 23 are in the archives and he’s the star of all seven. His run from 1932-1939 ended abruptly and that was it (odd that it was during Hollywood’s golden year). I think that because of his many faces and range the studios were not able to bank a film based on his face, fan-base, and on screen persona (like they could with Gable, Stewart, Bogart and others).
directors worked with: William Dieterle (3) in biopics that are frankly more interesting for Muni than the film, and then LeRoy once and Hawks once
Top 5 Performances:
- I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang
- The Story of Louis Pasteur
- The Good Earth
- The Life of Emile Zola
|1932- I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang|
|1933- The World Changes|
|1936- The Story of Louis Pasteur|
|1937- The Life of Emile Zola|
|1937- The Good Earth|