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A Discussion of Paul Muni

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Paul Muni is one of the best actors, and it seems that he wisely chose the films he wanted to be in, so that most of them are good.



I'm a Fugitive from a Chain Gang


The Life of Emile Zola



His first film, The Valiant, is unusual and very good, with a surprise ending.


We Are Not Alone, is very good, but it has a sad ending that I don't like. But the rest of the movie is very good.

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While he didn't make that many films. He alternated between films & Broadway. He is very interested to watch. *I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Scarface* are must sees.

also *Angel on My Shoulder* w/ Claude Rains and just about anything in his filmography.


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Italian Personality Poster by Luigi Martinati


What I find interesting about the career of Paul Muni is that except in one or two instances he, alone, carried each of the films he starred in. *The Good Earth* and *Juarez* are about the only Muni films in which another star had what would be called "equal billing" to him.

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I have always really liked Paul Muni and I think he was a wonderful actor. I first discovered him years ago when I caught his "I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" in which he was outstanding. I started renting more of his films and read a biography about him.


He came from a strong theatrical background (Yiddish theater) and was a respected stage and screen actor. I think he might of done better if he did less "biographical films" and maybe more contemporary films, e.g. Scarface which again he was outstanding.


He was the "main star" at Warner Bros studio for years, and what he wanted he got. The problem was (IMHO) he was so into "the make-up" aspect of his characters that he started to lose his "fan" base and they were the ones who bought the tickets. His fans and others couldn't "see" Paul Muni through his make-up which might work in a few films but not in a whole string of them.


Also, again IMO in some of his biographical films he at times tended to get a little too "stagey or ham-like." The other "problem was his wife "Bella" who was always on the set with him. He would do a scene then look at his wife, if she shook her head yes it was ok, if she shook her head no, he wanted to do the scene over again. I guess he never really listened to his directors and of course this type of behavior did not make him popular with the cast or crew.


However, he did leave was with many fine performances, e.g all of his films mentioned before, and it should be noted he was nominated for best actor in his last screen performance in "The Last Angry Man."


Also, he was in the stage version of "Inherit the Wind" and I believe won a Tony for his performance.


He was a complicated man, who was very shy, and had a domineering mother and wife. It might have been better if he would have gotten away from these domineering women and maybe just "sow a few wild oats" for a while.



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Lori, as a long time lover of the book, I found Muni's *The Last Angry Man* a huge disappointment. Although I don't blame Muni. I can't be sure if it was his idea, or the director's to have him play Sam Ableman WAY too laid back.



But Muni was considered in his day to be an "actor's actor", much like Vincent D'Onofrio is today. So deft was he at his craft, it seems concievable he could have pulled off doing a better Elizabeth than Bette Davis.



I've long been an admirer and fan.






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Sepiatone, I too am a Paul Muni admirer.


Although for awhile he was the “actor’s actor” he started to believe his own press and that was his downfall. Also to me some of his work seems dated and does not transfer well to today’s classic movie fans. I think he was probably very difficult to work with and that did cause his career to take a nose dive. I think as an actor he probably was better suited to the stage. I had a professor in college who saw him in “Inherit the Wind” and he was still talking about Muni’s performance in the late 1980’s.


As I also noted he might have done better if he would have left the wife at home. He also from my reading had the bad habit of “becoming the character” he was portraying to the extent where he brought the “character” home and this is not a healthy practice and is not the “goal” of Method actors, at least the way I understand it. He may be an icon to “classic movie fans” he does not have the iconic status that others of his era have, and I would bet that the average Joe on the street has never heard of Paul Muni, but they know who Jimmy Stewart or Spence Tracy was. That is a sad fact, because he did have the talent, and in certain roles was outstanding.



He did go out with a "bang" though in that in his last screen performance "The last Angry Man" he was nominated for an Oscar for lead actor, but he lost to the star of Ben Hur.









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I agree with you, Lori. Who talks about Paul Muni today, outside of a few people on this thread?


And that's the irony. In the late '30s Muni and Bette Davis were the prestige stars of Warner Brothers, the ones expected to bring in the Oscar nominations for their studio. Cagney's tough guy films and Flynn adventures were just regarded as a way for the studio to make money. While Cagney was regarded as a good actor, Flynn never had much respect at the studio as a performer (still doesn't in many quarters today, though some acknowledge he was underrated as a talent).


But it was Muni got got an Oscar for Pasteur, and two more nominations for Zola and Juarez. Personally I find his biographical performances as Pasteur and Zola to be rather "busy.". You see the wheels turning, you see Muni saying with his every gesture in those films, "I am a GREAT actor, and now I am going to prove it."


To me, someone like Cagney or Garfield or yes, the much underrated Flynn at his best, are much more natural reactors on screen. None of those three could be accused of "ham," the way that Muni increasingly was in some of his later work (Hudson's Bay or, ouch, Song to Remember-Muni is unbearable in that last film).


Cagney, Garfield and Flynn are personality stars who enjoy more popularity today than Muni, an actor who submerged himself in a characterization and had no identifiable screen persona like the others. While he had the admiration of the critics for that, most of whom regarded him as superior to the other three performers (heck, Flynn was particularly dismissed as an actor even his his prime years by the critics), fans today respond to him less than the other "personality" stars.


Having said that, I think Muni was brilliant in his early years before his great press seemed to go to his head. I thought him incredible in both Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.


Today, however, he's a Warners star who is a semi-forgotten figure, while Cagney lives as an immortal, as does Flynn, if only because of Robin Hood. Garfield's name may have a much deserved resurgence in time. There are certainly those working at it (hello, Lori), but I really don't hear many people saying, "HEY, PAUL MUNI WAS A GREAT ACTOR. HOW COME NO ONE TALKS ABOUT HIM ANY MORE?"


I think it's because no one cares.

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It did seem Muni had more of a passion for the stage than for movie making. John Malkovich today once claimed the same thing, once saying "making movies is stupid". But Malkovich has made so MANY over time that I think he's had a change of heart.



But it's never good to bite the hand that feeds you. The HAND might not give a s***, but the PUBLIC cools off some. Like those "thespians" who make a boatload of money doing some TV show that go on interviews or talk shows saying, "I don't watch TV. I don't even OWN a television!" in a superior tone of voice.



From what I've managed to read and hear about Muni, he strikes me as being somewhat in that vein.






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Tom, I think we agree. Paul Muni, was a great actor in some of his roles, but became a little or a lot too "ham like" in other roles.


Some of Paul Muni's films do not always “transfer” well to today’s audience. Being a great actor does not mean one needs to “chew up” the scenery as some thought it did during Muni’s popular time or in the 50’s. To me, some of the “big” acting of the 50’s was just the “flavor” of the month. Being a great actor to me means, the actor portrays the character in such a “natural” way that the character becomes believable. Really, one see’s no acting in their acting. That at least is my opinion. Muni did display this ability early in his career, but fame, his press his wife or someone moved him in the wrong direction and a good part of his films and performances are viewed as very dated and do not appeal to today’s audience. He was very good in “The Good Earth” but I guess Luise Rainer did not enjoy working with him, again because of his wife’s present on the set.


Kind of sad, because he did have the talent, he just moved in the wrong direction and I think maybe as I noted believed his "press." Many actors though of his time, saw him a one of the greats.





Edited by: Lori3 on Dec 11, 2012 1:09 PM

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There's something about Muni's kind of "ham" that I find distracting. Before he was the official WB guy-to-go-to-for-a-bio, it was George Arliss. The latter was also rather theatrical, but there was a twinkle in his eyes, a sense of his having "fun" engaging in his profession. He was also known for helping new talent, an attribute never spoken when it comes to Muni.


Muni was next in the chain, but he seems so deadly serious on being proclaimed a great actor that he appears often to be working in a vacuum. He appears detached, almost as if he's thinking "Damn it, get to my cue so I can show everyone that I'm the greatest." When Muni was giving the studio a hard time, they fell to Edward G. Robinson for a few of these things and I much prefer him, again, another man who appears to be enjoying his craft and not just insisting that his greatness be applauded.


That said, I do love Muni in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG which is one of my favorite films of all time. He also seems to be having some fun with SCARFACE but later some of his ethnic roles took on the semblance of a vaudeville sketch. BORDERTOWN may be the best example of this

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*clore wrote:There's something about Muni's kind of "ham" that I find distracting*


To me it's more than distracting. Muni's ham, such as in A Song to Remember, is downright irritating. There's fun "ham" and there's serious I'm-giving-the-dramatic-performance-of-a-lifetime "ham".


Watching Basil Rathbone, for example, in Captain Blood (with that outrageiously overdone verr French ac-cent) is a hoot. He's a fun ham, in my opinion. I love watching Rathbone overdo it (another would be Claude Rains' villainy in Anthony Adverse when he at one point bursts into high pitched hysterical laughter while looking square at the camera).


Muni, though, was a serious ham. There's no sense of an actor saying to the audience, "Have fun with me, this performance is a lark." When I watch Muni chew up the scenery in Hudson's Bay or A Song to Remember I want to push a pie in his face. Sorry but Muni can bring out the Moe Howard in me.


Some of Muni's later film performances date quite badly in my opinion (though not in Angel on my Shoulder or Last Angry Man). His later ham "acting" makes me squirm as I watch him in a manner that Cagney, Garfield or Flynn's acting all seems quite modern in comparison. At least to me. I've never seen a performance from any of those three actors that makes me roll my eyes the way some of Muni's work does.


(Again I'm excluding early performances that Muni gave from this appraisal. He IS having fun as Scarface (and the audience with him) and he is remarkably real, honest and touching in I Am A Fugitive).


Muni and Garfield were both Method actors. With Muni I see those acting wheels turning in many of his performances (Pasteur, Zola) and I groan a bit in reaction. With Garfield I NEVER see an actor plying his trade so much as I see my perception of a real person responding on screen to his environment. Garfield was soooooo natural as a performer. Muni was too, in I Am a Fugitive, but he lost that naturalness along the way, in my opinion.


I have to say that of Warners major male stars of the '30s and '40s, most of them I love (Cagney, Flynn, Bogie, Edward G., Garfield). Paul Muni is the noteworthy exception, though it's undeniable from his earlier screen work that he was very talented. The problem is that after a while he was very aware of that great talent and it affected the quality of his work.

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Oh Tom you make me laugh, "brings out the Moe Howard in me." I know what you mean though. I know Muni was not part of the Group theater, but I guess he was a Method actor in some peoples minds.

He however, at least from my readings, kind of got in wrong in that he "became" the character he was portraying and lost himself in the roles. Which from my understanding is not the goal of the Method actor. It is more to find something in the character that you can identify with, understand or maybe have experienced in your past. Also the Method actor uses his or her past emotions to help "flesh out" or make more real the character.


I remember reading that Abraham Polonsky said, Garfield came to him during the filming of Force of Evil and said, "I just don't understand this character of mine." Polonsky said, just think of him as one the mugs or bad boys you have played over the years, but this character has a college education. I guess that did for Garfield, he understood the character, but not from his own life since he never even graduated from high school. I think maybe he thought back to all the educated and intellectuals who were in the Group theater with him and used that memory to make the character real.


It is a shame that Muni got caught up in believing he was the greatest because at the beginning of his films career he was so natural, and that is what a good actor needs to be, natural.

No acting should be seen, unless the actor is "hamming it up" to play with the character and the audience, then it works.



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> {quote:title=TomJH wrote:}{quote}


> Cagney, Garfield and Flynn are personality stars who enjoy more popularity today than Muni, an actor who submerged himself in a characterization and *had no identifiable screen persona like the others.*


I think you put your finger on why Muni isn't better remembered right there. While Cagney, Garfield, and Flynn were all pretty versatile, they still had very identifiable screen personas. When we think of them, we think of a certain attitude, a sort of character. Not so for Muni.


I am very much a Muni fan. I don't think he was as hammy as you, and some others, do. And, even when he is a bit of a ham, like Fred, I like that ham!

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I love good biopics, and i think that Paul Muni delivered some of the best ever.

He was an actor I admired very much as a kid in such roles as Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Juarez, and such.

I've always thought of him as an actor's actor. And one of the greatest character actors that ever reached star status. i can't say that I haven't looked forward to seeing him in any film that he's been in.

Yeah, I can see where some have called him a serious actor, perhaps he took himself too seriously, I don't know. I know very little of the man or his personal life, I only know that I like his style and versatility on the screen, always have and probably always will. To me he is one of the greatest.

I place very few in that category, Bette Davis & Meryl Streep, Robert di Niro, and a few others. Each of these greats could be almost unrecognizable from one character role to another. But unlike Muni, if you watched enough of their films you could maybe get a small sense of the person inside the actor. A Davis, or di Niro personna. But Muni was always a different guy, from one role to another... I saw the characters he played, but never Muni. Unless it was Muni the ham, as some have called him.

Maybe that is why few people may remember him today, nobody, or too few of us ever got a sense of Muni outside of, or rather inside of, the characters he played.

Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, and others are great actors, and played great characters, but they each had a familiar & recognizable screen personna from film to film.

Douglas had the Douglas persona, Lancaster the Lancaster persona, and so on. But not Muni.

Other great character actors that I really enjoy, and that come close to Muni are Fredric March, and someone else mentioned George Arliss, who I grew to appreciate only as an adult.

Most great character actors never make it to star status, but those that have, like Walter Brennan, had enough personna that we could recognize them in their different roles as, hey, that's Walter Brennan. But I always had to look hard to see Muni... from the Good Earth, to Juarez, yeah, he wasn't Chinese, or a Mexican Indian, and maybe those roles should have gone to ethnic actors, but Muni transformed himself into his characters, he became Juarez, He became Pasteur, He became Zola... I felt like I was watching history on screen!.

I love the guy for that. I think that all of his films are winners. yeah I do like some better than others, but I'd watch them all again, just because he is in them.

Oh and one of my favorite "fun" Paul Muni characters is the rascally rogue Pierre-Esprit Radisson in Hudson's Bay. I love that movie!

So relax and enjoy Paul Muni whenever he is on. He may not be everybody's cup of tea, but you'll never know if you'll enjoy the flavor unless you try a cup or two! :D

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*When Muni was giving the studio a hard time, they fell to Edward G. Robinson for a few of these things and I much prefer him, again, another man who appears to be enjoying his craft and not just insisting that his greatness be applauded.*


Eddie G. was the recipient of a script development department at Warners that had been geared to fine-tuning prestige screenplays for the demanding Muni and his wife. When Muni bailed from WB at the end of the 30s, Robinson inherited some of these roles, and made them his own. He was especially impressive in the biopics A DISPATCH FROM REUTERS and DR. ERLICH'S MAGIC BULLET.


I agree with the assessment here that Muni is not so well known today because he disappeared into his characterizations, rather than having his roles revolve around his establishe persona or image. However, i enjoy his biographical roles of the late 30s as well as his earlier movies. That said, his French accent in HUDSON'S BAY is a little hard to take (I much prefer Laird Cregar's joyful character as his sidekick here).


Edited by: Arturo on Dec 11, 2012 11:56 PM

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Arturo, I do remember reading that Muni refused the lead in "The Sea Wolf" which worked out fine as far as I am concerned because I can't imagine anyone else in that role than Edward G. He was marvelous as that sadistic sea captain.



Muni did find that magic again late in his career, getting a Tony for "Inherit the Wind" and being nominated for best actor in his last film "The Last Angry Man."


Trivia: Muni had to leave the play Inherit the Wind due to severe eye pain, he had to have his left eye removed due to a tumor, and therefore in his last film he had a glass eye. He also was an extremely shy man, painfully shy at times.





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