Saturday, 16 October 2021

Remembering Paul Muni - Veteran cinephile Gary Andrews remembers the actor and his role in JUAREZ (William Dieterle, USA, 1939)


The Marx brothers were five (not just the well-known three, but also Zeppo and Gummo). The Karamazov brothers were three (and maybe another from the other side of the blanket). The Warner brothers were four - Jack, Harry, Albert and Sam.  Jack was the leader of the pack, and a pack it was.  None of the founders of the great Hollywood studios had much formal education, but they all knew which side was up; and they created great businesses.  And the movies were massive earners of export income for the USA.  The reward for all this?  For example, for each of the nine years from 1937, Louis B. Meyer, studio head at MGM, was the highest paid salary-earner in the USA – a salary of $1.2 million in 1937.

The Warner Bros studios in Burbank California produced some of the great films of the so-called “golden age” of Hollywood. Warner Bros weren’t much into musicals – although they had introduced sound to the movies with The Jazz Singer in 1927.  They weren’t much into domestic comedies  – although, having said that, numerous exceptions come to mind; after all, in the 20 years 1931 to 1950 Warner Bros released 2000 films - the voracious world-wide public had to be fed something.  They weren’t at all into westerns.  But they were into crime and melodrama and adventure – black and white seemed to be their natural milieu, and their “big” productions in black and white were just as credible as the equivalent technicolour ones emanating from MGM down the road at Culver City.  Still, generalising is a mug’s game!  

 I am quite certain, however, that the dozens of Warner Bros films of the ‘30s and ‘40s - films that I first saw when they appeared on the small screen after the 1956 advent of television in Australia - were invariably entertaining.   Not necessarily “good” films, but never “bad”; corny sometimes, but never crap. [It was no coincidence that television – the new opiate of the masses - began transmission in Australia just in time to broadcast the Melbourne Olympic Games, the greatest gladiatorial contest on Earth. But the baby was somewhat overdue, and for the living rooms of most of the populace the advent was too late.  Many early viewers got their fix standing in the street in front of some electrical goods retailer, peering into the window at a television set.  And a set with a screen not much bigger than today’s laptops.

One niche that Warners occupied for a time was the biopic – never-entirely-factual biographies, always adding the entertainer’s touch of melo to the drama.  In 1934 Madame du Barry seduced us (or, at least, Louis XV); in 1936 The Story of Louis Pasteur was packaged for safe consumption; and The Life of Emile Zola flashed before us in 1937.  In 1940 Warners informed us with A Despatch from Reuter’s, telling the tale of Julius Reuter, the pioneer of news agency services; and treated us to Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, about Paul Ehrlich whose research led to a cure for syphilis.  And somewhere between these opuses, in 1939, came Juarez, a story about Benito Juarez, the Mexican patriot, revolutionary, and politician.  Not a very marketable subject I should have thought, not at all in the mainstream of what (in Hollywood’s mind) would appeal to the audience for a Hollywood movie: backwater nation (albeit a neighbour), little known hero, and with unimpressive physique thus disqualifying the “love interest”.  But the Studio had to keep feeding the pigeons; and, more important I suspect, it had a continuing need to get value from its numerous contract players. Despite MGM’s motto ars gratia artis (art for art’s sake), that studio - indeed all the studios - were dedicated production machines.  Hollywood is often accorded the name “dream factory”, and it’s important to give each word equal weight.

It could be that Paul Muni suggested the subject of Juarez, for himself in the starring role.  Muni was an actor’s actor, was acknowledged as the most prestigious actor in the Warner Bros stable, and was said to be the only player under contract to Warners who was allowed to choose his parts.  Whether this actually meant to choose, or simply to reject, I don’t know.  Certainly the studios quickly categorised their players according to “type”, and rarely bothered to cast an established actor in a role for which that actor wasn’t already typecast.  So, unless they were wanting a break from their stereotype, if actors objected to roles it would most likely be because the roles weren’t big enough.  

Paul Muni and wife of 45 years
Bella Finkel

Anyway, Muni was above all this.  He was a private person (married to the same and only wife for 45 years), made only a modest number of films (23 all up, in a 30-year Hollywood career); but won a best actor Oscar and was nominated four other times.  [Incidentally, at the time of filming, Muni’s contracted salary was $11500 per week, bettered at Warners only by James Cagney on $12500.  The then highest-paid female contracted to Warners was Bette Davis, on $4000 per week. While Ann Sheridan, for instance, was on $500 per week.]

But I always thought Muni was a ham, and a liability to the films he played in and the parts he played.  His voice was a monotone guttural, his body movements were graceless and unanimated; and, according to one commentator of similar sentiment: "his Juarez is wooden and stiff, less human being than stuffed owl" and his "performance is borderline robotic".  It is inconceivable that in real life Benito Juarez was the uncharismatic blob Muni portrayed. 

Of peon origin for sure, ruthless indeed, unacquainted with Parisienne haute couture definitely (said to have modelled his sombre attire on that of Abraham Lincoln):  but the man formed and led a revolutionary army that defeated and expelled the French-imposed Mexican government.  And he then led his country until his death in 1872.  Clearly, he was a significant blip on the scope of history, and a central player in the French escapade in Mexico - the jaw-dropping improbability of which amazed me in 1962, and intrigues me still.  

A bit of pre-history.  The story of the peoples who came to occupy the area today known as Mexico is thought to have begun about 8000 BCE, but not until around 1500 BCE are the Olmecs identified as a "civilization".  Through a succession of dominant groups (the Mayas, and the Toltecs) the Aztecs were the dominant group at the time the Spanish arrived in1517.  Within two years the Cortez expedition (ex Cuba) of 11 ships and 450 soldiers commenced the engagement, the exploitation, and the conquest of the Aztecs, and the commencement of Spanish occupancy.  The Spanish rule of Mexico lasted for near 300 years - until Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Spain (in 1808), triggering in 1810, on the other side of the globe, the Mexican war for independence.  By 1821 the independence of Mexico had officially begun.  But, in 1846 the United States annexed the Mexican territory of Texas; and in the consequent Mexican-American war Mexico lost the regions of New Mexico and California [for which Mexico received $15 million compensation], and was forced to recognise the territory north of the Rio Grande as belonging to the United States. 

Then, in 1857, a reformist government, in which Juarez was a cabinet member, established a new constitution, a constitution which provided for universal male suffrage and for freedom of speech, and which curtailed the power of the Church.  However the bitter opposition of conservative groups led, in 1858, to the three-year-long War of Reform.  At war's end Juarez emerged as the Mexican leader.  But not all insurgency was quelled; and Napoleon III - using Juarez's repudiation of foreign debts as a pretext - unbelievably recruited Archduke Maximilian of Austria to ascend the non-existent Mexican throne.  French troops occupied Mexico City, Juarez fled, and Maximilian arrived in 1863.  Four years later he was dead, and Benito Juarez had reclaimed the presidency.  He served thus until his death in 1872

Without detailing past events, the film picks up elements of the back-story, then impels them onwards:  the Mexican ambitions of Napoleon III, soon to collapse in ignominy, and withdrawal; Maximilian's naive belief that his presence in Mexico would be universally welcomed; the treachery of the French, inevitably leading to Maximilian's execution; and Benito Juarez saving his nation from the oppressors.

Bette Davis, Brian Aherne, Juarez

In the movie the part of Maximilian, Juarez's nemesis, was played by Brian Aherne – an Englishman, one of the British “mafia” expatriated in Hollywood in the 1930s. Aherne had an Oxbridge accent, a beautifully modulated and mellifluous voice, and a tall and “commanding” persona.  He had a forty-year film career in London and Hollywood, and was on stage and in television. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Maximilian.   Another film where Aherne exemplified nobility of character was the 1953 re-telling of the Titanic disaster, with Aherne in the role of Captain Smith.

Aherne played Maximilian as a man of principle, not convinced that the French cause in Mexico was correct or just, but certain that he must fulfil his duty with honour. 

 In Aherne’s portrayal Maximilian maintained his dignity to the moment of his death before the Juarez firing squad.  In life and in the film, Maximilian paid members of the firing squad to aim at his heart; but in life (not in the film) they shot away his face anyway.  His last words were “Viva Mexico!”.  In my view, despite the film being the Benito Juarez story, it is Maximilian who earns our sympathy, and who becomes in effect the leading character - Aherne's portrayal substantially assisted by Muni’s unsympathetic characterisation of Juarez.

Juarez was released in April 1939.  It would have arrived on Australian screens some months later (as was then the norm), and I saw it on television, early in 1962 I would guess.   I was so attracted by the story of Maximilian – the folly of the journey to Mexico, and the nobility of the protagonist – that I forthwith went to the Public Library to learn more.  It is an unsurprising fact that in Melbourne in the 1960s there was no mention of Mexico in the school history curricula (ditto today, I expect), so the Juarez and Maximilian story was unknown to me.  Perhaps this total ignorance was responsible for my overstretched response; but I had to know more.  I can’t now remember whether I called for a bunch of Mexican history books from the stacks, but I do know that I riffled through the index cards, and made a list of likely volumes - and then proceeded to buy them.

At the time, one of Melbourne’s more interesting second-hand bookshops was N.H.Seward & Co.  The Seward shop was on the south side of Bourke Street, near the Queen Street corner. The building was later demolished, and Dalgety House took its place.  [Dalgety House, coincidentally, was the location of my office from 1980 to 1990.]  Sewards was a most unusual firm in that it combined the second-hand bookselling business with the retailing of telescopes and other optical products.  The shop invariably seemed to be attended by elderly assistants (“elderly” as I understood it at the time, that is..........the word has gained significant elasticity for me as the years have passed), and I’m tempted to speculate that at some stage in the Seward family history the book business was added to the optical business to satisfy the leanings of a younger family member.  I’ll never know.  The Seward business and its name long ago slipped under the waves like Brian Aherne’s tragic steamship.  Anyway, the Sewards people did their search job and on my shelves are three volumes I acquired at the time.  They are listed at the end of this Piece.

As I reach the end of this little dip into Mexican history (and into my own past) I note with surprise that I have failed to pay due attention to Bette Davis, who played the part of Maximilian’s consort, Empress Carlota.  Davis was a woman of uncommon spirit (today we’d call her feisty, probably Feisty 101), and not only did she originate the name Oscar for the Academy Award statuette (after her husband at the time, Harmon Oscar Nelson), but she vigorously fought the studio contract system, even to the point of going on strike. Davis was Warners’ leading female star (and when she wasn’t overacting she could probably act), and a big money-earner for the Studio; but she was also the biggest thorn in their side. Her fights with Jack Warner were legendary.  

The Bette Davis role in Juarez was a plum one. 

 She was the glamorous Princess Charlotte of Belgium, who came to Mexico with Maximilian, married him in the cathedral in Mexico City to become Empress Carlota; and watched the Emperor’s power slip away. When Maximilian was arrested by Juarez’s troops Carlota was in Europe traipsing around the courts and governments (and the Vatican) seeking and begging for support for her husband and his Mexican undertaking.  She failed to secure such support, and never returned to Mexico.  Instead, Maximilian’s body was returned to Europe. Carlota became insane [and lived until 1927].  As I say, a plum role, and Davis repaid the Studio with equal lashings of ballroom glamour and frenzied insanity.  One commentator writes that the scene where she appeals for help from Napoleon lll "is a sensational exhibition of frenzy from the acting standpoint"; and another writes: "her final flitting away into the darkness of madness is the most unforgettable moment in the picture".

Notwithstanding the prominent place of Benito Juarez in the Mexican story I believe that Maximilian deserves an equal place on history’s page - even though he was a dupe. He was a man of inherent nobility, compassion, and goodness - characteristics not so often found within the one skin. I wonder whether such a brace of virtues is more likely to emerge in one who is born with the silver spoon of noblesse oblige in his mouth, or one who rises above the privations of the gutter.  

One thing is for sure, however.  Anyone surfacing from the grease trap of poverty will surely have street smarts - something the barons of Hollywood all had, and something Juarez had; and, fatally, something Maximilian never had.

Let Benito Juarez have the final word:  "When a monarch misrules, he changes the people.  When a president misrules, the people change him."


Gary Andrews

Postscript: My impression of Paul Muni as an acting "blob" is challenged in the Jerome Lawrence biography, Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni (1974). The making of Juarez was a major Warner Bros project and, with a budget of $1,750,000, the studio's biggest to date. The working title, The Phantom Crown, was changed to Juarez in honour not of the Mexican patriot but to acknowledge the studio's greatest star. The studio had sourced over 300 books, documents, and photographs to authenticate the project.  "Muni seemed not merely to read the voluminous research, but to absorb it into his viscera."   The seven months lead-time gave Muni ample time to prepare, which preparation included a six weeks trip to Mexico in company with the film's scheduled director, William Dieterle and producer Hal Wallis, to meet the President. Muni also met survivors from the Juarez army of liberation.  "Muni quizzed them endlessly, not merely about the battles they remembered, but about the man Juarez, probing for the tiniest detail of habits and gestures. Did he ever smile?  How?  Did he ever laugh out loud?  Joyfully? Did he ever weep?  Describe his voice: soft? throaty? dynamic?  What did it feel like when Juarez walked into a room?

"Muni chose to underplay the role of Juarez totally.  He gives the impression of a giant, stolid and unmoving.....he cut away all extraneous gestures or the flamboyant use of props.  Later Muni felt he had been too faithful to the original, not allowing himself an artist's prerogative of adding coloration to the historical character.  He blamed himself for the fact that Juarez was far less popular then his previous biographical films."

And a titbit. Muni asked studio head, Jack Warner, to over-rule a clause in Muni's contract that guaranteed Muni, for each film, sole star billing above the film title.  He asked that Bette Davis be given equal billing.

Post-Postscript:  For a further morsel of insight into the movie-making business, and into the business of acting, here are some extracts from the Bette Davis autobiography, The Lonely Life (1962): 

 "Juarez was peculiarly constructed.  The part of the film in which Brian Aherne and I appeared as Maximilian and Carlota was shot and assembled before Mr. Muni as Juarez ever stepped before a camera. He saw our part of the picture in the projection room, and his wife, Bella, observed that it was a 'complete picture without ever seeing Juarez'.  It was true. Mr. Muni brought with him fifty additional pages of script that he wanted added to his part.  He was that powerful and the studio allowed it.  

"The length of any picture must be limited.  When the Juarez part of the film was finished, we were in trouble lengthwise.  Something had to go.  Brian's and my part of the film received the cuts.  Although it was a good motion picture, the film, before cutting destroyed it in the abattoir, was a great one.  Mr. Muni's seniority proved our downfall.  [Muni was still alive when Davis published this.] 

"Paul was a most attractive man, I thought.  Evidently he did not think so and usually retreated behind a beard. Transference is one thing, but I sincerely believe the audience wants to become familiar with certain physical attributes that are ever present in each performance.  Mr. Muni seemed intent on submerging himself so completely that he disappeared.  There is no question that his technique as an actor was superb.  But, for me, beneath the exquisite petit point of details, the loss of his own sovereignty worked conversely to rob some of his characterisations of blood.  It is a criticism that I aim at the naturalist actors."

And then, as if by way of apology, Davis adds: "Paul's intellect was always at work.  He fought the good fight in his own terms and added greatly to the dignity and respectability of Hollywood."


The Quick-Step of an Emperor: Maximilian of Mexicoby George P. Messervy (1921) 

The Mexican Adventureby Daniel Dawson (1935) 

A History of Mexico by Henry Bamford Parkes (1938, 1960 revision) [with N.H. Seward Pty Ltd invoice dated 8 October 1962, for 3 pounds 12 shillings ($7.20)]

Gary Andrews

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