The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture

Chosen Actor: Paul Muni as Scarface

Part I

This article originally appeared in U.S. and Them, a publication of the Virginia Festival of American Film

Paul Muni, perceived by many as the most important serious film actor in American film in the thirties, usually did not have a big "box office". Nevertheless, his films were deemed worthy by the studio heads of receiving major productions due to their important subject matter. He was the star of early social-realism films such as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang , The Good Earth, Louis Pasteur, Emile Zola, Black Fury, Juarez, Counterattack, and The Last Angry Man, which set the stage for films by present-day films by directors as diverse as Sidney Lumet, Sidney Pollack, John Sayles, and Oliver Stone. His contract was unprecedented, in the thirties, because it linked the following: it was very lucrative, Muni was given "first-look rights" on scripts and could turn down any script and then submit his own, he had a stable of writers to write or doctor scripts that were sent to him, and he had the option of turning down any production that filmed in the summer so that he could perform in the theatre. In other words he was an industry unto himself, the way stars are today.

Yet, Muni found his start in gangster plays and films. Through a close reading of Muni's character Scarface, in the gangster/early noir film Scarface, we will demonstrate that it needed an ethnic/Jewish actor to project certain intentions in the film. Further, we will show why and how Muni was chosen to project these intentions. To understand this, we must put it in the context of Muni's life and career.

It is important to note that Scarface, a film about crime, with a subtext about ethnicity, was made by producer Howard Hughes, written by Ben Hecht, and directed by Howard Hawks. Hughes and Hawks were both non-Jews and non-immigrants. One reading for the film is that it is a counter-response to the ethnicity in Hollywood, as Jewish immigrant studio heads and talent were creating their perception of the "American Dream".(1) By recruiting Jewish writer Ben Hecht, and former Yiddish Theatre actor Muni, we will see that Hughes and Hawks had what they considered to be the necessary elements to portray their view of the most despicable evil incarnate to date on screen in, Scarface: the Shame of the Nation. By focusing on Muni's life in theatre and film we will demonstrate that he acted as a "chosen" carrier for the projections of evil that Hughes, Hecht, and Hawks carried. Finally we look at Muni's responses to being "chosen" and how he consciously shifted his career in response to that.

I. Historic Background, Yiddish Theatre, and a Jewish Performance Context

Muni Weisenfreund was born in Lemburg, in 1895, at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His name was later changed in America by movie studio heads. His family name, meaning "wise-friend", comes from a long list of German names given to Jews and other resident aliens by the government in a program to bring Jews into the societies around them and utilize their perceived abilities in commerce. In 1782 the Emperor Joseph II of Austria-Hungary issued the Edict of Toleration that dissolved the walls of legal and physical separation. Along with organizing community affairs, it mandated the adoption of German names and surnames, required the use of all German legal documents, for the first time made Jews subject to compulsory military service, and imposed secular schooling. Yet anti-Semitism continued, which contributed to the mass migrations of Jews to Western countries.

Muni's family, a theatrical one, came to this country hoping for opportunities that wouldn't have been possible in Europe. They were greeted by backbreaking work in poor theatres, low wages, and mistreatment by employers in the Yiddish Theatre. They had to play many roles-- producers, musicians, stage hands, primary actors, walk-ons, directors, playwrights, script doctors, managers, booking agents, public relations, and designers. Muni relates a story about seeing his father building a set after his mother had left with another man. One night after a performance he collapsed on stage and was rushed to the hospital. Not long afterwords he died.(2) One could say he died as much from the pressure to succeed as he did from the loss of his wife.

The immigrant Jewish performer was overwhelmingly faced with the need to succeed and, consequently, be accepted in a suspicious and hostile society. Different than animosity towards other immigrant groups, Jews had to transcend anti-Semitic images perpetuated through international affairs such as the Dreyfus case in France in the late 1800's and the Mendel Beilis blood libel case in Russia and the Leo Frank lynching in Atlanta in the early 1900's. This gave Jews a strong feeling of insecurity in their new homeland. and created a need for Jewish actors and performers to be accepted by both Jewish and Gentile audiences. Yet this exhibited itself in different ways. Immigrants playing to their own, played characters from within their social group and from their own performance/cultural style and aesthetic. Their performances reflected the current ethnic situations they lived in and their desire to succeed in America. That is why so much of Yiddish Theatre was made up of family melodrama, reflecting the losses and hardships of becoming upwardly mobile. "Ethnicity is shown to be a constraint-- and a construction-- from which characters and audiences can at least be temporarily liberated. Roleplaying, which was necessary and typically alienating, could become pleasurable, subversive, and affirming of self."(3)

When ethnic performers left their group to play for the majority culture, they role-played to the public's perceptions of ethnics and immigrants, often playing "outsiders" who were comic fools or criminals. Performers developed styles to cope with these differing acting demands, wearing appropriate "masks" to play in those venues. Some masked themselves quite literally-- like Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker-- in blackface. Some, took on acting styles or role-playing masks. While wearing these masks they occasionally let the mask slip to reveal their culture, or sometimes parody the dominant culture, while still being acceptable to mainstream audiences. This can be seen most clearly in the work of the Marx Brothers who used American vaudeville and commedia dell'arte characters to perform Yiddish "shtick" and make fun of the dominant WASP culture; or in the music of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, who used ragtime and blues to mask klezmer and cantorial riffs and covertly make African-American music part of the mainstream.(4)

II. The Making and Masking of Muni

Muni's transition to American, English-speaking theatre occurred in a play appropriately entitled We Americans. Like Israel Horovitz's more recent play, The Primary English Class, it is the story of immigrants learning English and becoming citizens in this country. The play emphasized caricatures of immigrants and Muni played a very elderly Jewish man. Notably, he used a very heavy make-up, totally distorting his features so that he would be unrecognizable. This would become a distinguishing trademark of Muni's. His propensity for heavy make-ups was both his way of wearing a mask in order to perform, and, also, allowed both Jews and Gentiles a means to accept the strong Yiddish Theatre style of acting that he employed. Often, when he "acted out of make-up", he felt insecure and couldn't release a believable acting impulse.

Muni's acting style combined the German Expressionism of Max Reinhardt's theatre, the external psychological approach of Stanislavskian technique, and, of course, and the strong ironic-emotionalism of the Yiddish Theatre. Muni's style was described in the 1931 by theatre critic R. Dana Skinner:

Paul Muni--whom the stage first recognized as Muni Weisenfreund--is frankly an emotionalist. There is something of the majesty and also the frenzy of a dance in his best performances. He draws upon both body and voice, using both as instruments to be played upon, rather than as instruments through which the part flows. He is the antithesis of the over-calm English school of acting, having far more in common with the highly strung German actors of the type of Moissi. He uses artificiality and exaggeration with deliberate intent to heighten illusion. His work is always intensely interesting, especially as representing a modern version of the art that must have been Irving's and Salvini's, and that was certainly Mansfield's. He would make an outstanding Othello.(5)

Lee Strasberg, founder of Actors Studio, said that Muni "needed a mask; he needed a sense of being somebody else in order to be himself."<6) This became a constant in Muni's career and was what audiences looked for. It is interesting that Skinner sees him as being perfect for the role of Othello, the black Moor. Here is an example of the Jewish actor being linked to primitive blackness and animal-like qualities that white actors, who play Othello, often employ. (This is unlike the way the great African-American actor, Paul Robeson performed Othello, as a tragic noble king.)(7)

Muni's entrée into the American speaking theatre nearly didn't happen. He was chosen to play the part in We Americans at the time that he had quit the Yiddish Art Theatre. The part of the old man in We Americans was originally supposed to go to Edward G. Robinson, but he had another commitment. Producer Sam Harris needed someone quickly and heard about Muni from a former Yiddish Theatre actor in the cast. The Forward wrote, "It was the wide opportunities, the chance to play that lured him. Weisenfreund is an actor, first and last. On the Yiddish stage, his scope is naturally limited. Here if you're not a star-manager, you have to limit yourself to roles offered by the director who is susceptible to whims and caprices."(8) His abilities in doing effective make-ups and submerging his own personality were also noted. A review, often quoted from the press, wrote that it was a shame that this octogenarian had to wait such a long time before his "big break" on Broadway. Two pictures of Muni were placed side-by-side inside the lobby of the theater, one of Muni as the elderly character and the other as Muni as his young thirty-one year old self. Muni's masks, either in heavy make-up or in highly emotional characters, not only helped him submerge himself but helped him in making his strong Yiddish Theatre approach acceptable to audiences.

His early roles on Broadway emphasized Jews on the fringes of society. His next play, Four Walls by Dana Burnet, was about gangster Benny Horowitz, who tries to go straight after being released from prison. These roles furthered Muni's persona as an actor raised from low, immigrant origins. He received a rare editorial in the New York Times by J. Brooks Atkinson.

Wisenfrends's acting in Four Walls is extremely imaginative. We are told that though he is still very young, he has already played 300 Yiddish roles. We can easily believe this, for Mr. Wisenfrend's vigorous flexibility is the work of a mature actor. But experience alone is not enough . He has the kind of depth and intelligence which would bring him to the front, no matter how much training he had, or how little. We hope to see him in a new role, for he is one of our most interesting and original performers.(9)

Clearly, Muni is seen as a new, vibrant talent. But is there more to it than that? Why is so much attention given to Muni, a former Yiddish performer? What do audiences see and what do they want to see? As mentioned above, Skinner compared him to actors of a bygone era, known for their emotionalism, and as a possible (savage?) Othello. The Times wrote that he was one of the most original performers. But what kind of performing had he done that English-speaking audiences knew? He had only been in two Broadway plays, one as an old Yiddish man and the other as a Jewish ex-convict. Perhaps it was in his exoticism that Muni was celebrated. Up to this time, he supplied highly emotional, somewhat grotesque (sometimes physically and sometimes spiritually malformed) Jewish characters for the American Theatre.

What was the image of the Jew at this time in the American psyche that Muni might have fulfilled? In film, which hoped to reach out to a larger audience of Americans than theatre, we can see that Jews from early on were depicted in grotesque and simian ways. Early films of The Merchant of Venice show Shylock "... as a despicable and malevolent character possessing few if any redeeming qualities....his "Jewishness" remains clearly prominent in his physical appearance...gaunt appearance, hooked nose, and strange hat."(10) The same is seen in the popular 1922 version of Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan as Oliver and "the man of a thousand faces"-- Lon Chaney as Fagin.(11) Chaney was known as the actor par excellence for grotesque characterizations.

Parallel to these depictions of Jewish anti-Semitic characterizations were immigrant Jewish performers, who wanted recognition from mainstream audiences, yet needed to let their "Jewishness" out. As Samson Raphaelson (the writer of the article, that became the play, that became the film The Jazz Singer ) wrote, when he saw Al Jolson perform on stage in 1917:

"My God, this isn't a jazz singer. This is a Cantor! This grotesque figure in blackface, kneeling at the end of a runway which projected him into the heart of his audience with a prayer-- an evangelical moan-- a tortured imperious call that hurtled through the house....The words didn't matter, the melody didn't matter. It was the emotion, the emotion of a cantor.(12)

Raphaelson saw the liturgical singer in the synagogue through the mask of Jolson's blackface (and Jolson probably let it slip), recognizing the emotionalism he was familiar with in religious services. Raphaelson was, also, seeing in Jolson what he wanted to see, yet his comment shows the dualism and dialectic of Jews performing in an American milieu. Blackfaced masking in The Jazz Singer has been commented on extensively, both for its negative portrayals of African-Americans and for its protective covering of Jews.(13) Yet, Jews were at least recognizable to other Jews and mainstream audiences saw in the image of the Jew and the Jew as the "the other", a primitively exciting event. An example of this can be seen in the distinguished critic, Gilbert Seldes commentary on Jolson and Jewish comedienne Fanny Brice in 1924:

One man on the American stage, and one woman, are possessed-- Al Jolson and Fanny Brice. Their daemons are not of the same order, but together they represent all we have of the Great God Pan, and we ought to be grateful for it. For in addition to being more or less a Christian country, America is a Protestant community and a business organization-- and none of these units is peculiarly prolific in the creation of daemonic individuals.... (In describing Jolson's rendition of Swanee by George Gershwin) In the absurd black-face that is so little negroid that it goes well with diversions in Yiddish accents, Jolson created image after image of longing, and his existence through the song was wholly in its rhythm.(14)

Reading Seldes, we see his adoration of Jolson and Brice, not only because of their great performances, but because he locates their talent coming from their Jewishness, and most importantly, when he sees them perform he doesn't just see a performer-- he sees a Jewish performer.

Muni's career became known for playing "the other" in film. Drawing on Muni's experience playing Jewish gangsters on Broadway, Muni's first film, The Valiant, was about a convicted murderer who goes to the death chamber to spare his family the shame of his crime. And though he doesn't play a Jew, he has clearly been typed (if not stereotyped) as the daemonic criminal.

III. The Choosing of Muni as Scarface and the Characterization

The Virginia Festival of American Film's theme, U.S. and Them, is a perfect frame for doing a close reading of the performance of Muni in Scarface . Scarface shows the theme of the outsider/criminal in American film and allows us to analyze why a particular actor from a particular ethnic group was chosen to portray this outsider. As one of producer Howard Hughes' few films, it is set apart from the productions of the immigrant movie moguls and yet reflects the perceptions of the "outsider" and the Jew as "outsider". First, let us look at how Muni was chosen for the role of the Italian gangster Scarface, loosely based on the life of Al Capone.

According to director, Howard Hawks, he had heard of Muni and remembered him from the Yiddish Theatre.

"Irving Thalberg, an old friend of mine, heard about the story (Scarface ) and said: 'We've got a fella over here at MGM and maybe you'd like him. His name is Clark Gable.' Well, I'd seen his first picture, and I turned him down. We needed a fantastic ACTOR , not just a personality...A lot of people told me about Paul Muni and I remembered seeing him in the Yiddish Theatre in a fine scene with his back to the camera, where he was such a purist he'd even made up his hands to fit the character." (15)

Yet Hawks must have been looking for something more. Here is a review of Muni in the play he performed just previous to the role of Scarface. The play was This One Man by Sidney Buchman, and Muni plays a brutal, unfeeling thug who allows his brother to be executed for a crime he committed:

As Saul, the unregenerate, Mr. Muni is overpowering and magnificent. He is an actor of virtuosity, with a variety of vocal inflections and great physical stamina. In his acting Saul becomes a character of many qualities--fright, rage, bravado, perplexity and remorse. Mr. Muni discriminates. He can play like a caged lion which he has to, but he can also retreat from destiny like a man stunned with fear. He has a considerable career behind him. That is all the more reason for believing that he has a great career ahead. (16)

Hawks must have known Muni's reputation beyond the Yiddish Theatre, because a memory of a scene in the Yiddish Theatre alone wouldn't have moved him to choose Muni. He was making a choice towards an image he wanted to project. Notice how he selectively remembers the making up of the hands. Muni represented, as the Times review states, exoticism, physicality, and in Hawks' mind, the dual image of the Jew as foreign and shadowy. The American-born, Clark Gable would never do. The part had to go to Muni because he represented something beyond the norm and would endow the part with something from his own culture.

Bearing in mind what Muni represented, as the Jewish outsider, it is important to understand the psychology of Jews as the outsider and as gangsters at this time. Clearly, the public image of the Italian was linked to gangsterism and the mob. Al Capone was one of many Italian immigrants who terrorized this country through murder and brutality during Prohibition in the 1920's-30's. Yet, Jews were also linked to the mob and Italian gangsters. In Atlantic City, in 1929, a famed meeting of gangland bosses included Italian mafiosi Al Capone, Frank Costello, Charlie "Lucky" Luciano, Johnny Torrio, and Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky, "Longy" Zwillman, and Louis "Lepke" Buchalter.(17) For every Al Capone involved in racketeering and bootlegging, there was an Arnold Rothstein (who fixed the Chicago White Sox World Series and was Fitzgerald's model for the character Wolfsheim, in The Great Gatsby) or a "Legs" Diamond involved in illegal gambling, extortion, or murder.

These events fed deeper images of the Jew that went further back into history. The social historian, Sander Gilman describes how anti-Semitic caricatures of Jews often centered on the dark and erotic outsider. "The image of the Jew revealed in his sexuality, seems to be an accepted manner of labeling the image of the deviant. Even his phallus does not know for sure until he performs a "perverse" act. Here the icon is a reversal of the traditional image of the phallus as the beast out of control. In this image it is the man, not his phallus, who is bestial (read: Jewish). The perversion of the Jew (and thus the "humor" of this depiction of the phallus) lies in his sexualized relationship to capital. This, of course, echoes the oldest and most basic calumny against the Jew, his avarice for the possession of "things," of "money," which signals his inability to understand (and produce) anything of transcendant aesthetic value...And thus the Jew becomes the representative of the deviant genitalia, the genitalia not under control of the moral rational conscience."(18)

When Hughes asked Ben Hecht, the sensationalist Jewish reporter/ novelist/ screenwriter to write the script, he said he wanted a different kind of gangster film. He wanted the Borgia family and incest to be represented on screen.(19) This film was to be different from Little Caesar and Public Enemy in that it was to depict an erotic menace, that if allowed to exist would be uncontrollable. Having been a journalist in Chicago, Hecht knew first-hand the gangsterism of Italians and Jews. He, also, wrote characterizations of Jews in a very anti-Semitic light, as was fashionable in literature at the time. (Witness: the Jewish character of Wolfsheim) Here are two passages, among many, that reference anti-Semitic images from Hecht's A Jew in Love:

These Jew faces in which their race leers and burns like some biologic disease are rather shocking to a mongrelized world. People dislike being reminded of their origins. They shudder a bit mystically at the sight of anyone who looks too much like a fish, a chimpanzee or a Jew...

Boshere...had a face stamped with the hieroglyphic curl of the Hebrew alphabet. For his face, however, he had invented such un-Jewish expressions, surrounded it with such delicate mannierisms (although he never quite outgrew the semi-onanistic activities of his hands) that his personality had lost its Semitic flavor." (20)

Through Hecht's writing about Jews and the linkages between Italian gangsters and Jews, we can see the likelihood of Hecht merging Al Capone's scar with the anti-Semitic images of the Jewish deviant to create Scarface/Tony Camonte. Let's now look at the film in light of all that we've previously discussed.

In the film's first scene Camonte is silhouetted in shadow with his gun. He greets the gang boss with a "Hello Louie" and then shoots him, emphatically-- as uncontrolled evil slinking and sliding out of, and into the night. This shadowy icon, depicted as a beast out of control, is further portrayed in the next scene, when Camonte and his "scar-face" are actually revealed to us. He is in a barber chair with a hot towel covering his face. When unwrapped, his face looks as though it had just been born, revealed in all its monstrousness and grotesqueness. With his hair slicked back, his eyes dark and penetrating-- he resembles a creature, more reptillian than human.

To PART II of this article

Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.

Back to listing of articles.