Theatre yesterday and today



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September 23, 2020: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

Paul Muni was an actor of stage and screen who reigned supreme as a star of the first magnitude in the 1930s. Warner Bros even signed him to a seven-year contract and billed him with a certain awe as “Mr. Paul Muni.” No one else was ever afforded that honor during the heyday of motion pictures, but mainly due to the fact he only made 22 films, his name means little now compared to that of contemporaries such as Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart. But Muni was a singular talent, with a wonderful backstory, and is the subject of today’s “Theatre Yesterday and Today.”

Paul Muni (1895–1967), as the title role in “The Life of Emile Zola,”

on the cover of Time Magazine (1937).

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, the only way to slake my thirst for old movies was seeing them in chopped up versions on television. Sad in this day of streaming, but I was forced to watch genuine classics littered with commercials popping up so often that entire sequences had to be cut (the Singin’ in the Rain I first encountered was in a ninety-minute time slot and didn’t include Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’em Laugh” — sacrilege!). However, my interest was so great that I hardly minded viewing butchered masterpieces (even technicolor was in black and white, as my family was the last on our block to purchase a color TV set). Yet when I caught my first glimpse of Paul Muni in a severely edited I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang on a tiny screen, this gritty 1932 crime drama retained its striking power. Even in the early days of my figuring out what constituted a great actor from a good one, I could tell that Muni was the real deal. After him, I looked at movie acting very differently. His performance as a convict forever on the run haunted my dreams — and for good reason. The final moments of that film with Muni retreating into darkness is one of the most chilling climaxes ever put on film… even after close to ninety years.

“I steal.” Paul Muni in the unforgettable final frame of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).

Honed by his many years on the stage, Muni brought his abilities as a skilled makeup artist when he began his film career. Add to that a commanding voice, which he could use with great virtuosity; so much so that a critic once wrote that “a Muni whisper could reach the last balcony of any theater.” This put him in good stead when in 1927 The Jazz Singer, the first “all-talking film,” forced Hollywood to raid Broadway in finding anyone with stage experience in the hopes they could speak equally well for the camera, Muni became that rare thing: a character actor thrust into the position of leading man by virtue of his talent, and not by his looks or romantic possibilities. The result of his first time on film was an Academy Award nomination The Valiant (he also received one for his final one, The Last Angry Man, something only one other actor has accomplished — and that was in the sorry case of James Dean’s early death).

Paul Muni, as always, in character (1895–1967).

Muni became famous mostly for essaying historical characters, portraying multiple nationalities and ethnicities that belied his Jewish heritage. In his second film, Seven Faces, tailored especially for him and his makeup skills, he played Don Juan and Napoleon in addition to five others (sadly, Seven Faces, for which he received his second Academy Award nomination, no longer exists and is considered a “lost” film). Photos show his versatility, though unfortunately also what was then the norm of portraying someone of a different race by donning “blackface.”