Paul Muni was born Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund on September 22, 1895) in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (now known as Lviv, Ukraine). His parents were Jewish actors that immigrated to the United States in 1902. He started working on the stage at 12 years of age, when he was known by a Yiddish nickname Moonie, but didn’t make it to Broadway until he was nearly thirty. His first Hollywood role came five years later in The Valiant (1929), for which Muni received his first of six Best Actor Academy Award nominations. Dissatisfied and/or disillusioned, he returned to Broadway for three years before he came back to Hollywood and established himself among his profession’s elite, especially in historical biographies directed by William Dieterle. Later in his career, he would return to the stage where he earned a Tony Award in 1955 playing Henry Drummond (the role Spencer Tracy would play onscreen five years later) in "Inherit the Wind". After earning his sixth Best Actor Oscar nomination in the title role of his last film - The Last Angry Man (1959) - Muni would die of heart problems just eight years later in August, 1967.
Though I’ve not seen The Valiant (1929), and evidently few others have either (it’s not available via VHS or DVD, nor is it in TCM’s library), I have seen most of Paul Muni’s too few films; he made less than two dozen! His next two title roles emphatically announced his return to the big screen after a three year absence: in the original (and controversial) Scarface, The Shame of the Nation (1932) and in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), for which the actor would receive his second Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Each social drama tackled different crime and punishment related issues. In the first, directed by Howard Hawks and co-produced by Howard Hughes, he plays an Al Capone-like hood that works his way up through the ranks, knocks off his gangster boss to become the gang’s leader, and creates terror in the city with a machine gun he secures from a rival (played by Boris Karloff). Karen Morley plays his moll, and George Raft plays his coin flipping second in command that gets too chummy with his boss’s sister (Ann Dvorak). Then, for his home studio (Warner Bros.) and director Mervyn LeRoy, Muni played James Allen, a wrongly accused man who was convicted and imprisoned in Georgia, where he had to work on a chain gang. But Allen escaped, changed his identity, and lived free and successfully in Chicago until a woman (Glenda Farrell) discovered his secret and blackmailed him into marrying her so that she could live off his largess. When later he met and fell in love with Helen Vinson’s character, his wife exposed him and Allen was forced to decide whether to fight further incarceration or voluntarily return to prison to serve 90 days, after which he’d been promised a full pardon. The ending is haunting, and classic. Soon thereafter, Muni was again paired with Farrell and directed by LeRoy in the original but oft-remade comedy Hi, Nellie! (1934), one of only two comedies in which the actor appeared (the other was one of his last film roles, a reluctantly reformed gangster in Angel on My Shoulder (1946), with Anne Baxter and Claude Rains as the devil in a twist on his Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1940) role).
Muni could play crude, brutish ethnic characters like he did opposite Bette Davis and Margaret Lindsay in Bordertown (1935) and as bohunk Joe Radek in Black Fury (1935), which earned the actor his third Best Actor Oscar nomination, or he could play more refined intellectual-types (e.g.) in the fictional Dr. Socrates (1935), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Dieterle directed the actor in each of these title roles and the biography of Benito Juarez (1939), another Muni movie (like Bordertown (1935)) in which Davis plays a mentally unbalanced, even hysterical character. For playing Pasteur, Muni finally received his Best Actor Academy Award and, as the muckraking writer Zola, he was nominated for the fifth time. While portraying these thinking men, actor Muni would often open his eyes wide and/or thrust a finger in the air - when his character had finally found the solution to the problem, or to make his point - making these his signature gestures.
Prior to World War II, Muni stayed at Warner Bros. except for two turns in 1937, as Wang in MGM’s The Good Earth (1937) - Irving Thalberg’s last great achievement - and in director Anatole Litvak’s American debut - RKO’s The Woman I Love (1937) - with Miriam Hopkins, then he worked for Columbia Pictures. During the war, he played heroic soldiers in two dramas - Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942) and Counter-Attack (1945) - and was top-billed in another biographical drama - A Song to Remember (1945) - though it was Cornel Wilde who played the pianist composer Chopin. After the war (and Angel on My Shoulder (1946)), Muni returned to the stage and, except for appearing in a forgettable Italian feature in 1952, wasn’t seen onscreen again until his final film The Last Angry Man (1959) playing an old cantankerous Jewish doctor "Good Samaritan" that lives in the ghettos of New York among drug dealers and other criminals; David Wayne plays a stressed out TV producer that wants to tell the story in a documentary.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog