Actor Paul Muni (1895-1967) was a human chameleon obsessed with transforming himself for his roles. Throughout the 1930s and into the ‘40s he was considered America’s premier dramatic actor, landing six Oscar nominations and one win.
But along with his genius came some world-class eccentricities.
Muni was painfully shy and became completely unnerved when fans recognized him in public.
He did extensive research to prepare for his roles and once he’d settled on an interpretation no one – not his director, not his fellow actors – could get him to vary from it. He allowed his wife to be the final judge of his work... if she didn’t approve of a scene, it had to be reshot.
Between takes on the movie set he calmed himself by playing a violin. He was thrown into a panic if he saw someone wearing red clothing.
And Muni gave up a lucrative Warner Bros. contract while still in his acting prime.
Born in Austria, Muni came to America as a child. His parents were actors in the Yiddish Theatre and Muni made his stage debut at age 12 playing an 80-year-old man. A master of stage makeup, Muni was so transformed that theater goers didn’t realize he was just a child.
Yiddish was his first language. He didn’t act in English until he was nearly 30 years old.
His work on Broadway attracted the attention of 20th Century Fox, which cast him in two films. With his very first screen appearance in The Valient (1929) Muni earned an Oscar nomination. In his second film, Seven Faces (also ‘29) he used his makeup skills to portray seven different characters.
But both efforts tanked at the box office and Muni returned to his first love, the stage. After a spate of great reviews on Broadway, Warner Bros. came calling, offering Muni a contract that allowed him to choose his roles. The first product of this collaboration was a huge hit, Scarface (1932).
The film was obviously inspired by the scar-faced Al Capone, the most notorious of the Prohibition Era-bootleggers, who was serving a term in federal prison when the movie came out.
Most of today’s movie goers are familiar with the 1983 Al Pacino Scarface, less so with the Muni original. Though set in different eras, the plots of the two films are remarkably similar. In both versions a young thug (he’s Tony Camonte in the Muni version, Tony Montana in the Pacino telling) rises through the ranks of gangsterdom, eliminating enemies and even allies who get in his way.
In both films Tony exhibits a less-than-healthy interest in the love life of his younger sister, killing a loyal cohort who has fallen for her. And in both he woos a bored and emotionally-detached blonde who is attracted by his animal magnetism and casually contemptuous of his lower-class ways.
Muni’s style here is highly theatrical, bigger than life. He would become a more subtle film actor with the passing years, but in Scarface it’s almost as if he was acting on stage and pitching his performance to the folks in the upper balcony.
It has been suggested that director Howard Hawks urged his star to make Tony look ape-like, with low-hanging arms and a slightly curved spine. Some of his grimaces even seem monkey-ish.
Muni’s Tony is feral and arrogant, but streetwise. He’s childlike in his love of fancy clothes, beautiful women, fast cars, and especially the Thompson submachine gun.
We’re not supposed to like Muni’s thug. Scarface was meant as an expose. By 1932 gangsters had become folk heroes with much of the public. Their exploits were celebrated in the media, and many a common man identified with the tough guys who had the guts and the smarts to flourish when the rest of America was enduring bank failures and bread lines.
The film even begins with a statement of intentions: “This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty.”
That’s all well and good, but the truth is that audiences found Muni’s hotheaded killer to be wildly entertaining and were thrilled with the film’s high body count. So Warner Bros. had it both ways – taking the moral high ground while dishing plenty of antisocial behavior.
Other films in the series “Muni the Magnificent”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 7: Scarface (1932) Not Rated
- December 14: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) Not Rated
- December 21: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) Not Rated
- December 28: The Life of Emile Zola (1937) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.