Best Movies by Farr: Masterful Muni

March 29, 2019 | John Farr

This week’s Reel 13 Classic, Angel on My Shoulder, stars the inimitable Paul Muni, an actor whose brilliant chops shone particularly bright in the three films John Farr highlights here.

Scarface (1932)

In Prohibition-era Chicago, a power struggle is underway: mobster Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) is charged with killing the reigning mob boss, but manages to beat the rap. Tony is nothing if not ambitious: soon enough he’s seized control of the whole bootlegging racket, through sheer cunning and good ol’ fashioned homicide.Though his rise is meteoric, we sense Tony’s fall may be just as dramatic.

Hawks’s film was the most violent America had ever seen (with 30+ on-screen deaths), but the visual energy he brought to the production proved intoxicating, making a big star of Muni, one the meanest criminal maniacs in screen history. Hawks upped the ante in other ways, too, like giving Ann Dvorak a central role as the slinky sis Camonte is perversely jealous of, despite having the sexy Karen Morley on his arm. And George Raft earned himself a studio contract playing Muni’s loyal, kill-happy sidekick, Guino. De Palma’s tongue-in-cheek remake has its own dirty charms, but Hawks’s vicious gangland biopic will never be topped for sheer bravado. Bonus: Boris Karloff as a North Side boss. Don’t miss this one!

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang(1932)

Sentenced to ten years on a chain gang for a restaurant holdup he was forced to participate in, hard-luck WWI vet James Allen (Paul Muni) sees his dreams of becoming an architect vanish. Unable to take the vicious, dehumanizing prison routine hes been condemned to, Allen escapes, holes up in Chicago, and begins a new life. But his past will not desert him so easily.

Anchored by Paul Muni’s gut-wrenching performance, Mervyn LeRoy’s socially outraged “Gang” is based on real-life escapee Robert Elliott Burns’s Depression-era memoirs. In fact, LeRoy’s gritty, unflinching depiction of the sadistic brutality of chain gangs proved so unpopular in Georgia, where the practice was perfected, that the state’s governor banned the film! Burns himself helped out with the script, and was eventually pardoned after the film’s release. Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1933, “Chain Gang” set the bar high for future prison movies, and its influence, which extends down to “Cool Hand Luke,” can’t be overstated.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Living in Paris with his impoverished painter friend Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), budding novelist Emile Zola (Paul Muni) encounters one frustration after another when his writings are repeatedly stymied by government censors unhappy with his penchant for depicting prostitutes and other persons of low character. Zola eventually makes a breakthrough, but faces his biggest challenge defending Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), whose trial for treason became one of the most controversial news events of the late 19th century.

Part film biography of France’s great writer, part riveting real-life story of justice, Dieterle’s well-mounted production is a triumph all around, especially for Muni and Schildkraut, who won an Oscar playing Dreyfus, for whom an aging Zola penned his now legendary tract “J’accuse.” Harry Davenport is also a compelling presence as the leader of the anti-Semitic officers presiding over Dreyfus’s fate. Winner of the Best Picture Oscar in 1937, “Life” is a splendidly acted, rousing historical film.

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