Paul Muni — Great Actor — Great Hermit (1936) 🇺🇸

Paul Muni |

December 22, 2021

There’s a reason why Paul Muni takes you out of yourself with his acting. He lives as no other actor in Hollywood lives. This great story tells you how — and why.

by Harry Lang

Paul Muni looked ghastly ill, as I watched him between scenes of The Story of Louis Pasteur — the dramatic screen version of the scientist’s life. There he stood, ‘way off on one side of the set, leaning with weary heaviness against a light scaffold, where the lights would not burn his eyes. Electricians shifted lamps, “prop” men hurried about, but Muni did not appear to see them. His face was heavy with lines of suffering. He talked to no one; just clung there.

After a while, Director Wilhelm Dieterle quietly walked to his side, quietly told him: “We’re ready for the next take, Paul.”

Muni looked up wearily. Slowly, painfully, then, he let go of the support to which he had been clinging. Every step was an obvious effort as he tottered, bent and weak, to a wheel chair before the camera. An assistant director had to help him as he lifted a foot, put it unsteadily on the foot rest of the chair, and lowered his body into the seat. Dieterle nodded. “All right, turn ‘em,” he called, and the cameras began whirring softly inside their “blimps.” “Silence, please!” shrieked an assistant director. The “take” was on; under the hot lights, the sick man, Muni, went painfully through a brief scene...

I turned, resentful and astonished, to the studio publicity man who had come on the set with me. “I didn’t know Muni was ill,” I protested. “Why in the name of decency do they let him work when he is so obviously sick?”

“Sick, my eye!” the press-agent snorted. “Muni is just as well as you or I — in better health than either of us, as a matter of fact.”

“But look at him,” I insisted. “He can hardly walk!” (The assistant director was helping him out of the wheel chair again, half-supporting him as Muni walked over to the corner of the set and sank back into an easy chair, his eyes closed.)

“Sure,” said the publicity man. “He looks sick to death — but it’s all an act. You see. when Paul is making a picture, he doesn’t ever step out of character — even between scenes — hardly even overnight. In this sequence, Pasteur is convalescent from a great illness. Muni is living that convalescence — not just before the camera, but all of the time. Muni is not just acting Pasteur; he is being Pasteur, the sick man.”

On the sets of other pictures, even where emotional drama was being played, I have seen players switch off their emotions instantly and become matter-of-fact, as soon as a “take” was over. But Muni never jokes on the set — no matter how long it is between takes. Even at lunchtime, he eats in his dressing-room — and stays in character while he is eating. Making a movie is a serious business with Muni.

I have been telling you all this as a tip-off to the personality of the man. I want to tell you more about him — intimate things, many of them never before revealed. When you have heard them, you will understand better why this Muni is one of Hollywood’s greatest character actors; why he is one of the very few stars of the screen who can take you out of reality, as you sit in the theatre, and carry you completely into the story.

On the screen, he is never Muni, but always the character he is playing. Arliss is always Arliss, Beery is always Beery, Chaplin is never anyone but Chaplin — and each is a great artist in his special way. But Muni transcends their work in this manner — Muni totally submerges his own personality when he is working. He submerges it so utterly that for twenty-four hours of every day while he is making a picture, he is the character in the picture.

“Paul’s wife,” an intimate of his told me, “must have a time of it, being married to him. Because, you see, she is married to a different man every time Paul makes a new picture. Right now she is Mrs. Pasteur; in the past, she has been the wife of Scarface, the Gangster — the wife of a striking coal miner — even the wife of ‘A Fugitive from a Chain Gang’! What a life!”

But don’t gather from this amusing commentary that Bella (who is his wife) is annoyed at his absorption in his roles. His art is as important to her as it is to Muni himself. Not many people know it, but Bella Muni plays an actively important part in his work.

Often she sits in on the set, along with the director. She is there nearly every day during production. Not infrequently, after a take, she says quietly: “Paul, dear — that wasn’t so good!” Inevitably, that calls for a retake — at Paul’s insistence.

Bella, who was Bella Finkel on the New York stage, gave up her own professional career for the sake of her husband’s. Today she is his business manager, too. She signed for him the contract for Scarface, which led to his present screen success. He seeks her advice on make-up, characterization, his pay, whether or not to accept a part.

Perhaps it is because of the complete fullness of accord and joy of living between these two that Muni is the quiet, retiring person who has been dubbed “Hermit of Hollywood.”

Muni’s behavior on the rare occasions when he does appear in public is a dead give-away to even the most amateurish of psychoanalysts. At such times, Muni glad-hands and good-fellows it to an obviously overdone extent. Self-consciousness sticks out all over him. A nervousness that belies his handshaking and backslapping is all too evident. Muni is no hail-fellow-well-met — he is a shy, serious artist who likes nothing better than to do his work in the best way he can, and then be left alone to be the Hermit of Hollywood to his heart’s content.

It is tradition that hermits are supposed to live in caves, isn’t it? Well, Muni’s hermit-cave is a surprising thing — a onetime portable dressing-room in a far corner of his ranch.

He has it stacked with books, and that is where he goes when he wants to study or read or work. He has his beloved violin there, and sometimes when a certain mood strikes him, he expresses himself in mood-music.

Muni loves being there, entirely alone. Or maybe with his wife. But solitude is a passion with him. He has mental wanderlust; his keen, active mind tours the world, searching out things worth remembering. Parties are prosaic by comparison.

Books and music are his relaxation. Not detective novels or light modern fiction. Give him the writings of Shakespeare, Gorky, Tolstoi — men who probed and understood humanity — and he is happy.

Plays? — Eugene O’Neill has written the best modern ones, he believes. Upton Sinclair and James Joyce are his favorite contemporary authors. You see his mental trend?

In music — aside from the soft, sad, sweet songs of his race — he likes the works of Beethoven and Bach. Jazz is just so much noise to him. For “light” music, he approves of Jerome Kern’s velvety melodies.

Don’t gather from all this inside-walls stuff that Muni is a physical recluse, too, who does nothing except work and read and play music and hide away. On the ranch, he has a swimming pool and spends much time in it. Baseball, football, soccer games — and above all, prizefights — find him an enthusiastic watcher. He can box like a professional, himself.

But everything else is far. far secondary to Muni’s one overwhelming interest in life — the art of acting.

Seeing Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur, you will understand — because of this story — how he has worked the miracle of losing his own personality in that of the man he portrays. A man who actually lived — a man unlike Muni in appearance — a man who made life safer for all of us by his own daring adventures in science.

Above, Paul Muni as “Pasteur,” the young scientist

Photo by: Elmer Fryer (1898–1944)

Above, Paul Muni as “Pasteur,” the doctor

Source: Movie Classic Magazine, February 1936