Paul Muni (1895 – 1967) A Master of Method & Make-Up

Posted in Rewind by - December 05, 2013
Paul Muni (1895 – 1967) A Master of Method & Make-Up

Known as a transformation actor, and the favourite of Marlon Brando, Paul Muni immersed himself completely into each character he portrayed. He was also one of the first actors to have the pick of the crop when it came to choosing the roles he wanted to play.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Ukraine) on September 22nd 1895, Paul Muni honed his craft on the stage, where he learned about make-up and mannerisms. He would put these skills to great use in his movie career, when preparing his character’s traits and features for each part he took.

A noted stage actor, Muni began on Broadway in 1926, and in 1929 was signed by Fox Studios. Unhappy with the roles offered to him, Muni returned to the stage until Hollywood came calling with a couple of sensational parts.

1932 would turn out to be a triumphant year for Muni, starring in two now classics of the Pre-code era. First was Howard Hawks now iconic gangster movie ‘Scarface’, which had Muni as Tony Camonte, chewing the scenery in this controversial tale based on the life of Al Capone (who loved the movie!). That same year saw Muni play the lead in my favourite of his films, the potent crime drama ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, it told the mostly true story of a war veteran who accidentally gets caught up in a robbery, is wrongly convicted, and put on a chain gang.  The film holds up incredibly well today, and is still immensely powerful, and boasts one of cinemas greatest (yet depressing) last lines. Such was the controversy of the movie, a pardon was granted to the man which the movie was based upon, Robert Elliot Burns, who was himself still a fugitive at the time of the films release.

In 1936 Muni starred in the first of several biographical films, where he would transform his appearance and speech to suit each particular role. ‘The story of Louis Pasteur’ about the crusading scientists battle with the authorities, won Muni the Academy Award. The following year Muni was nominated again for another fine portrayal, as the French author Emile Zola in director William Dieterle’s ‘The Life of Emile Zola’. That same year he gave another wonderful performance as a Chinese farmer in the Oscar winning drama ‘The Good Earth’, which won co-star Luis Rainer the Best actress award.

In the 1940’s Paul Muni became dissatisfied with Hollywood, and would only accept offers he thought worthy of his talents. One such part he took was for 1945’s ‘A Song to Remember’, as Frederic Chopin’s tutor, Jozef Elsner.  The following year Muni accepted a rare comedy role, in the 1946 fantasy ‘An Angel on my Shoulder’, with Claude Rains. Focusing much of his time to the stage, in 1949 Muni was in the first English production of Arthur Miller’s acclaimed play ‘Death of a Salesman’, which he performed in London.

Continuing on the stage, Muni later won a Tony award for his performance as Henry Drummond in the celebrated play ‘Inherit the Wind’. Unfortunately, later that year Muni, then 59, was diagnosed with a tumor on the left eye, which resulted in him having to have the eye removed.

After another Oscar nomination in 1959, for the Daniel Mann drama ‘The Last Angry Man’, Muni retired from the movies. His last appearance on screen was on television in 1962 in an episode of the NBC drama series ‘Saints and Sinners’. An extremely shy man, Paul Muni was married for 46 years until his death on August 25th 1967, after suffering a long term heart disorder. He was 71 years old.

A one-of-a kind talent, Muni brought his own meticulous method to each performance, and therefor deserves to be remembered as one of the great acting giants of  cinemas Golden Age.



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