Star of the Month: Paul Muni
October 4, 2019 | by Shannon
Does the name sound familiar? Probably not, unless you are a diehard, Classic Hollywood fan. And you probably haven’t seen one of his films unless you are a diehard, Classic Hollywood fan with an interest in films that predate 1946!
I’ll be completely honest with you: I knew next to nothing about Paul Muni until I began researching his life last month. And let me tell you, digging up info was not easy!
Muni, best known for his stellar performances in Scarface (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and The Life of Emile Zola (1937) was a HUGE star in his day. He was revered as one of, if not the best, actors on the stage and screen during his career, particularly during his film peak in the 1930s.
A Niche Interest Star
So why have most of us never heard of him? Well, I think it boils down to a few things:
Muni was an extremely private person. I could get my hands on only two books about Muni. Of those two, only one had real depth of information. (And if you want to learn more about this elusive star, I highly recommend Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni by Jerome Lawrence. [aff. link] A very interesting and page-turning read!) Muni did not share his life with many people. Indeed, he was referred to as “Garbo Man” by the press—an obvious comparison to the intensely private Greta Garbo—for his reluctance to share any part of his life with the public! Reason number one why Muni is not a household name today.
Stage and Screen
Muni lived and breathed acting. It was his life. Similar to stars like Henry Fonda, Muni wanted his cake, and to eat it too! So he divided his time between Hollywood and Broadway. As a result, he made fewer movies. So we have fewer of his performances immortalized on film and available to watch. Second reason why Muni isn’t terribly well-known these days.
America's "First Actor"
Muni was an actor, not a personality. In his day, he garnered the respected title of America’s “First Actor.” (England had Olivier, we had Muni!) Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day, Humphrey Bogart…! You see a theme here? Often it’s the stars who become personalities, or a combination of actor/personality, that carve a place in public memory that can last through the generations. Muni was a character actor with a capital “C,” not a personality. In fact, he prided himself on never playing the same role twice! My final thought on why Muni and his impressive work is lesser known today.
Ok, so Paul Muni is more of a niche interest Classic Star. That alone makes him pretty intriguing! And I must say, as I learned more about him last month, I became quite captivated by this intensely private and talented man. Here are a few things I found particularly fascinating about Muni:
He’s from Austria-Hungary
Well, that’s an oversimplification with the ever-changing map of Eastern Europe over the years. Muni was born Frederich Meshilem Meir Weisenfreund (say that ten times fast!) on September 22, 1895 in Lemberg, Galicia. Today, that’s Lviv, Ukraine. Culturally, Muni identified with his Jewish heritage more than anything else, and spoke Yiddish fluently. He did not learn English until his family moved to London, and then the United States, in 1902. Muni was the only one of the three Muni boys, or his parents, who learned to speak “American” English without an accent.
He Grew up in the Yiddish Theater
Muni’s parents were actors. They had been actors in “the old country,” and continued their profession when the family moved to New York, and then Chicago. Muni’s father wanted all of his sons to learn the violin and become musicians, a “respectable profession.” But Muni was stage struck, and by the age of 8, he was appearing in Yiddish Theater productions with his parents. From this tender age, there was nothing else he wanted to do. Although he did get crazy good at the violin!
He Was a Stage Make-up Genius
Though he detested the comparison, Muni was often likened to Lon Chaney for his ability to completely transform himself behind the physical mask of a role. Muni did this with his own stage make-up expertise. In fact, Muni’s break through role on Broadway was playing an 80-year-old man in 1926’s We Americans. He was 30 years old!
Such were Muni’s skills as a make-up artist, reviewers of the play actually believed this character was played by an old man! One critic, so thoroughly convinced that Muni was in fact an elderly gentleman after seeing his performance, lamented:
“What an outrage that this old man should have spent a lifetime waiting to appear on Broadway!”
Ok, that’s AWESOME!!!!!! Talk about getting into character.
He Was an Oscar Winner
Muni won the Best Actor Academy Award in 1937 for his portrayal of Louis Pasteur in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). He was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar a total of six times!
He Became the Roles He Played
Muni intensely researched each character he played. He gained a reputation for being “the King” of biopics after his spot on portrayals of such famous men as Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur. But this complete immersion in each of his characters came with a price. When Muni was filming Scarface (1932), playing a character based off of notorious gangster Al Capone, Muni’s loyal wife Bella shared that
“I sensed a change in Muni which worried me. He seemed to have become different person. His whole manner towards me was different. At one time I thought: ‘Aha! Hollywood has got him. He is giving me the brushoff. He is not my Muni anymore.’ Suddenly it dawned on me. ‘Of course he isn’t my Muni. He is bringing Scarface home with him!”
Wow!!!! Muni certainly kept Bella on her toes! Bella often joked that being married to Muni was like being married to several men, and when she sat down to write her memoirs (which unfortunately were never finished), she titled the transcript
“The Men I Have Lived With!! -Dedicated to Muni—who else?”
He Was Married Once
In Hollywood, this is indeed a rarity! Muni and Bella were married in 1921, before he became a respected actor or star, and they stayed together until his death in 1967. Muni and Bella were actually set up by a matchmaker! Most of their friends would agree that Muni and Bella were not a love match, but they were loyal and faithful to each other, and their relationship had a strong foundation built on friendship. Bella was one of the very few people Muni trusted.
Bella was a constant presence on his film and stage sets. Without Bella there to guide his performance, Muni felt lost. His best performances on the stage and the screen were guided by Bella, and Muni always gave her credit where it was due.
He was Punctual!
Muni was extremely punctual! There were few things that annoyed him more than a person who did not respect time! He once stated that,
“If someone steals my money, that is one thing, but if they steal my time, they are stealing part of my life.”
I never looked at it that way, but so true!
He was a Fabulous Storyteller
When you’re an actor as gifted as Muni, is this really such a surprise? According to Muni’s friend, author Max Wilk, it was not uncommon for Muni to have his friends
“ …in stitches. That was a side of Muni that should be noted: he was a supreme raconteur [story teller] and enjoyed telling jokes. It gave him a chance to act out all his characters from the Yiddish theater: old Jewish women with limps, peddlers, doctors, bums, waiters. When Muni told you a story, he became those people.”
Well, there you have it! Some fun Paul Muni facts to give us a feel for who our October Star of the Month is before his films start playing on Monday! TCM will kick off Monday’s marathon with Scarface (1932) and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), two films that have stood the test of time. I’m so excited to watch them both!
Have you seen any Paul Muni films? Are you a seasoned fan, or is Muni a new name for you?