Author:Michael B. Druxman

Publisher:Published in the USA by BearManor Media

ISBN: 978-1-59393-927-4 (paperback) 978-1-59393-928-1 (hardcover)

This captivating and comprehensive survey of the career of American film and theatre actor Paul Muni is actually a reprint and reissue of Mr. Druxman’s 1974 work. Although the author states that one of the reasons for the reissue was his feeling that “the writing [of the original] was not the quality or style that I have since developed,” there is no indication that any changes were made in it.

As vividly presented by the author, Paul Muni was a dedicated perfectionist whose professional guard was always on full alert. His research of his roles, both as to his persona and its historical context, was intensely thorough, and his attention to detail in performance, including those that would never be observed by an audience, signs of a true professional. He would well understand Jo Van Fleet’s application of age spots on her relatively young skin notwithstanding assurances by the Wild River director and cameraman that the spots would never be noticed on the screen.

The author dabs at bio, focusing on Muni’s stage wife, Bella, who closely resembles the meddling Paula Strasberg. With unusual and refreshing candor, the author observes that the Muni union was more a professional partnership than a romance.

It seems that a major stimulus to the development of Muni’s outstanding acting technique was his periodic returns to the stage. Surely the most memorable occasion was his triumphant return to Broadway in Inherit the Wind, a wonderful play subsequently made into an equally fine film starring Spencer Tracey, Frederic March, and Gene Kelly, in a non-dancing role. Actually, all of the roles were non-dancing.

The book really hits its stride with the extensive section that comments on each of Muni’s films, including a plot synopsis, complete listing of cast, director, and designers, and a summary of critical notices from the major reviewers of the day.

It is great fun to see how the studios, principally Warner Brothers, tended to use tried and true actors and designers—much in the way Woody Allen works with his “family”—and it’s also fascinating to notice how actors who eventually became rather big stars, rose from the ranks of minor supporting roles. The back stories of the films, including cast alternatives that did or did not come about, also make for very enjoyable reading.

Sometimes the author’s assessment of a film or performance comes off as somewhat harsher than that of the consensus of the professional critics. I found this most jarring in Mr. Druxman’s opinions regarding the 1945 classic, A Song To Remember, the life and loves of Frederic Chopin as portrayed by a pitch-perfect cast starring Cornel Wilde, Merle Oberon, and in principal supporting roles, Muni and Nina Foch. The icy and worldly elegance of Oberon as George Sand contrasted ideally with the doe-in-the-headlights innocence of Wilde’s Chopin.

Now as for Muni, who played Chopin’s mentor and piano instructor, there’s no question that his interpretation was extreme, but often that is the hallmark of great and imaginative acting. I remember seeing a young woman playing opposite Edward G. Robinson in the Broadway play, Middle of the Night. Her choices were extreme to point that some audience members, including actors I was with, thought that this would surely be her last appearance in any performing medium. I vigorously defended her courage and was much vindicated when the woman turned out to be Gena Rowlands. (Those interested in safety-belt acting can attend Kim Novak’s hopeless portrayal of the film role.)

However, I have a much more basic problem with the book’s Song To Remember chapter. Whereas in all chapters, detailed credits are lavished on minor designers, there is no mention in the Song To Remember section of the unquestioned star of the film, which is the piano playing.

I’m aware that with some, but certainly not all, films featuring ghost voices the producers are given the right by the ghost to exclude any credit in order to enhance the image of the star. This is usually when the star has a record of doing some singing on his or her own. The use of secret singers was so general, particularly in films starring Rita Hayworth, that in “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” a special screen made it clear that Susan Hayward was doing her own singing. But does anyone seriously think that Cornel Wilde is a concert pianist?

Actually I don’t recall whether the credits for STR included a credit for the piano playing, but I believe the pianist was Jose Iturbi. In any case, surely it’s within the wheelhouse of such an extreme entertainment insider as Mr. Druxman to ferret out the facts. After all, he’s had more than 30 years to do it.