Thursday, February 9, 2017

Paul Muni

Paul Muni’s career began on the stage, where he starred in various productions with Yiddish theatre companies both on the East Coast and in New York.  This exposure brought him some fame on the theatre circuit and ended up landing him a part that would prove pivotal to his career, the starring role in his very first Broadway production.  Interestingly enough, Muni--who had been born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund and immigrated to the United States from Austria as a young boy--had up until this point, never before acted in English.  Nevertheless, the thirty one year-old’s performance in “We Americans” attracted the attention of major film studios like Fox and Warner Brothers.  He was subsequently cast in his first film, “The Valiant,” and while he was praised critically for his performance, it did not keep the film from flopping in the box office.  After “Seven Faces,” his next attempt to make it in film, fared similarly, Muni returned to the stage for a time. 

In 1932, Muni appeared on the big screen again in the excessively violent but massively successful independent gangster flick “Scarface.”  With this role and his turn in “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” he achieved some of the success he had not enjoyed in his previous foray into film and was quickly established as a rising star.  Warner Brothers seized on this opportunity and offered Muni a substantial contract, which he accepted.  

Determined to capitalize on their investment, the studio gave Muni as much exposure as they were able to, allowing him the rare privilege of script pre-approval, and even going so far as to bill him as “the world’s greatest actor.”  Their faith was repaid in full, as Muni soon garnered a massive following.  In turn, this gave Muni the leverage he needed to convince Warner Brothers to take a risk by making a biographical picture.  The studio funded his proposed project, albeit begrudgingly and with a paltry budget.  Fortunately, “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” was greatly successful and netted three Academy Awards, paving the way for future biopics starring Muni, like “The Life of Emile Zola.”  He would feature in several more successful films with Warner Brothers before finally ending his career where he began--on the stage.

Something else of particular note was Muni's staunch dedication to fully embodying a role.  This compulsion led him to transform himself physically to fit each character he portrayed.  His experience in the world of theatre had left him expertly trained in the application of stage makeup, a tool he would use frequently during his film career to mask his natural good looks and, in many cases, to make himself look far older than he was.  This frustrated studio head Jack Warner to no end, galvanizing him enough to ask, "Why are we paying him so much money when we can't even find him?"

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