best film: Scarface (the 1932 version with Howard Hawks at the helm of course) is superior to I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – enough at least to emerge here as Paul Muni’s best film. The opening act of Hawks’ film, so atypical of his normally quiet directorial approach, is so audacious. This is the best of the early 1930s prohibition era gangster films (beating out Little Caesar and The Public Enemy) from the two years prior with Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney respectively. Muni does much of the heavy lifting in Scarface after Hawks’ daring opening. Scarface is a very fine film, but this category is not a particular strength for Muni.
best performance: Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang are neck and neck here again. In both films, Muni plays a fugitive from the law – but they almost could not be more different. In Mervyn LeRoy’s film Muni plays an everyman (not something he would do often – he usually plays historical figures or larger than life characters) and there is such pathos and sympathy here. His James Allen character is a man who cannot catch a break – and he is up against a ruthless system and poor luck. In Scarface, Muni is busy chewing up the scenery and bathing in the warm glow of the camera’s attention – certainly inspiration for Al Pacino’s famous turn roughly a half century later in Brian De Palma’s 1983 version of the same name.
stylistic innovations/traits: Paul Muni was born in Austria-Hungary in what is now the Ukraine. This was before the turn of the 20th century (1895). Muni was one of the original acting chameleons. This is an important acting approach in cinema history. Technically, the lineage sort of starts with Lon Chaney – known as “The man of a Thousand Faces” – but Chaney uses so many masks it is hard to sort of compare him with what Muni was doing. Muni did not need a mask (though he could have single handedly kept a studio’s makeup department in business during a stretch in the 1930s). With Muni’s range, he is able to play different nationalities and characters. This is in an era when this just did not happen. Muni would be a gangster, an inventor, an everyman, a then a world leader political figure. Assuredly, this type of acting family tree would proudly be picked up by modern day chameleons like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, and Christian Bale. Muni had just over twenty (20) total film credits and racked up an astounding five Oscar nominations during his career – a crazy high ratio. The seven (7) archiveable films are light (though he is the star of all seven films), but Muni serves as a fundamental archetype in film acting history. The era where Muni dominated only spans a few years from 1932 to 1939 and ended abruptly there with Hollywood’s golden year. The many faces and range were tough for the studio to market (think of how well Cagney and Edward G. traded on their gangster roles and images) and clearly Muni had different aspirations. Muni tragically (at least for him) turned down the Roy ‘Mad Dog’ Earle Humphrey Bogart role in High Sierra (1941) – an interesting what if for both actors. It was not to be of course.
directors worked with: William Dieterle (3) and all biopics, Mervyn LeRoy (2), Howard Hawks (1)
top five 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 Pastier
|1937- The Life of Emile Zola
|1937- The Good Earth