Legendary Leopolitans: No. 1: Hollywood pioneer Paul Muni

  • Legendary Leopolitans:  No. 1: Hollywood pioneer Paul Muni
  • Legendary Leopolitans:  No. 1: Hollywood pioneer Paul Muni
Issue 20, January 2010.

 With a glittering movie career spanning four decades and a host of Oscar nominations, Paul Muni has often been acclaimed by Hollywood historians as one of the great pioneers of modern acting techniques. However, few dwell on the fact that his gift for method acting owed much to the theatrical traditions of his hometown Lviv, where the future Hollywood and Broadway star was first exposed to the magic of the stage.

Native Lvivite Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund was born in the final years of the nineteenth century at a time when the city was the easternmost administrative centre of the sprawling Habsburg Empire. As a child he left Galicia for America, but in truth this most celebrated émigré member of the Lviv’s once burgeoning Jewish community never really left his Leopolitan roots behind and remained inspired by local theatrical teachings for much of his
illustrious career. Today few in Lviv know much about the city’s most successful Hollywood actor, but nevertheless Muni offers a reminder of the culture and creativity of Lviv’s Jewish life before it was snuffed out  by the genocide of WWII.

Symbol of Lviv’s cosmopolitan culture
The Lviv where Muni spent his formative years was markedly different from today’s city. While many of the central streets and boulevards of Habsburg Lviv would be instantly recognisable to the modern eye, the population of the city in the early 1900s was far more cosmopolitan in character. At the turn of the twentieth century Lviv boasted large and prosperous Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian (known at the time as Ruthenian) and German- speaking communities, making this one of Europe’s first genuinely multicultural cities. Sadly, the Nazi holocaust and the bloody ethnic cleansing operations of the late 1940s led to the near total eradication of Lviv’s ancient Jewish and Polish communities, distorting our modern-day view of the city’s origins and creating the myth  of an eternal Ukrainian nationalist stronghold. However, the story of Paul Muni is the perfect antidote to such distortions and serves to illustrate the cultural diversity of the city during the Habsburg era. Born on September 22, 1895 in Lviv to a family of Jewish actors, Muni (Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund) began appearing on stage of  with his parents while still a young child. His parents were prominent actors at Lviv’s celebrated Jewish Theatre, which today serves as Lviv’s First Children’s Theatre on Hnatyuka Street. As a young child Meshilem would soak up the art of acting from experienced Lviv performers and while still a very young child he was already demonstrating a taste for throwing himself into his roles that would later have a huge impact on his Hollywood career. After the family’s move to the United States in 1902 he played in Yiddish theatre troupes along the east coast before joining the New York Yiddish Art Theatre in 1918. As a young actor in Lviv he had also mastered the art of makeup - a skill that served him well throughout his film career. As a result, the young Muni often played characters older than his years. During the 1920s he was a star of the Yiddish stage; this helped him land his first Broadway role as an elderly Jew in the play “We, Americans” (1926). He was lured to Hollywood to appear in The Valiant (1929) and received an Academy Award nomination for his first motion picture role.
Scarface and method acting During the 1930s Paul Muni was one of the most respected names in acting. He was a perfectionist and extremely selective in the scripts he would choose to do. (Muni’s contracts guaranteed him script approval.) Once a script was agreed upon, Muni required months to research his character and prepare for his performance. If the character was a historical figure, he would read every available book on the subject. If the character required a certain dialect, he would rehearse into a recorder until he was satisfied with his accent. Once filming began he would remain in character between takes and even when he was off duty and away from the film set entirely. This dedication helped to popularize the concept of method acting in Hollywood.
First identified by Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavski in the nineteenth century, the ideas underpinning the theory of method acting had already seeped across the Tsarist-Habsburg border by the end of the 1800s and become popular in Lviv. This theatrical tradition was then transported by Muni and other East European emigre actors who emerged as leading Hollywood figures in the 1920s and 1930s. Muni’s early films were financial failures, but he would achieve lasting fame with the movie “Scarface”, a gangster epic inspired by the lawlessness of the prohibition era. During the production of Scarface there were endless delays as the project  received repeated criticism from the censors. Their main objection was the glorification of the gangster lifestyle so the studio added a subtitle to the film: “the shame of the nation.” When the film was finally released it was a huge boxoffice success and Muni decided to remain in Hollywood to make more films. Muni’s next film was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” based on the autobiography of Robert E. Burns. The film was not only a critical and financial success (both the film and Muni received Academy nominations), but also helped bring about public awareness of prison conditions in the south. Needless to say, the southern portion of the country did not take well to the film. Muni’s next milestone picture was “The Story of Louis Pasteur”. It took some good arguing on the  part of Muni, the producer Henry Blanke, and the director William Dieterle to persuade Warner Brothers to back the film. The studio finally agreed, although they consented with a minimum budget and shooting schedule. The film was the shock of the year and Muni won an Oscar for his role. After this film Muni appeared in several other historical films, such as “The Life of Emile Zola” and “Juarez”. As usual, he brought his dedication to getting  into character to each role and spent months preparing for each film. Muni would eventually go on making movies until the late 1950s, dieing in 1967 at the age of 1971. He is remembered as both a Hollywood innovator and Lviv theatrical icon who took the magic of Lviv’s ancient Jewish theatrical traditions and reinvented them on  the silver screen.