The Aesthetics of Meaning:
Jewish Arts & Culture Chosen Actor: Paul Muni
by David Chack
Yet even more, this facial image of grotesquerie is sliced with a scar. As he comes towards us on the screen, in the barber chair, this mishapen head (Reading: Sander Gilman) can be seen as an erect phallus. This imagery is further reinforced through the way Scarface raises up his gun, as he hands it over to be hidden when the detective enters the barber shop. Later, in Ben Hecht's script, he mentions that his guns are always "spitting" bullets. Clearly, the phallic image of the shooting machine gun spewing his pollution, juxtaposed with the scar, is emblematic of xenophobic perceptions of Jewish circumcision. This linkage between circumcision, castration, and perversion, according to Gilman, goes back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. (21) The circumcision of the Jew was seen as an unnatural act, leading to deviancy, which in normal men was thought to lead to their castration and impotence. But in the case of the Jew it unleashes monstrousness. Muni, chosen as the murderous Italian, is marked as the crypto-Jew at the film's beginning.
Many other texturings in the film show Scarface and his companions fitting the stereotyped, psychopathological profile of the Jew, masked as an Italian. For instance their great need for money and material "things"-- lighters, clothes, cars, machine guns, women and telephones. The phone, in fact, becomes another way to reinforce the phallic symbol. In this case it becomes an ongoing comic and homoerotic routine, as Camonte teaches his secretary Angelo how to take a message and to take care of his boss. Fittingly, Angelo is an Italian name that can easily be feminized and put Angelo into the steretyped passive position to Camonte's dominance. Another texture is the sensual pleasure Camonte takes in his cruelty, shown in the way he always whistles the Sextet from Donizetti's opera, Lucia Di Lammermoor, every time he is about to murder someone. The obvious reason for this aria was because of the similarities of the story of Lucia with the erotic side of the Scarface story-- of a brother who rules his sister's love-life and is betrayed by her when she falls in love with someone else. Yet, the whistling adds a counterpoint of sinisterism that would not be present, linking eroticism to murder and further completing the mask of hidden evil.
This brings us to the erotic/incestuous relationship Tony Camonte has with his sister Francesca, who he always calls 'Cesca. Through this relationship, which she at first questions, but Camonte insists on, we see the true evil nature of this beast. Not only is he the over-protective brother in an immigrant family, but in his scenes with her, that are always in low-lighting, he is fascinated with her body. At times she encourages it, as when he catches her kissing a guy and she gives him a coquettish look. Camonte explodes with irrational rage. He says "I don't want anyone putting their hands on you." Then he grabs her.
"Like what you're doing," she snaps, in her typical American, "flapper" voice. "What do you think you're doing?" "I'm your brother," he replies in a heavily accented, angry voice. "You don't act it. You act more like. I don't know...sometimes I think..." "I don't care what you think" he replies angrily.
Trying to impress her and reconcile, he gives her money, reminding us of Scarface's values-- power and material "things". But, more importantly, the linkage is made to their eroticism. This reaches its climax near the end of the film. Let's look at this very closely, as it is the culmination of all the themes that have been developed.
Unbeknown to Tony, 'Cesca has secretly married Tony's closest henchman, Guido Rinaldo, also called "Little Boy" by Tony. Tony finds out that 'Cesca is living on her own and flies into a protective rage, running out to her new apartment. Tony comes down the hallway whistling the aria from Lucia slowly. Guido opens 'Cesca's door, and we see Tony, surprised. Guido starts to say something, but Tony doesn't ask questions. He shoots and Guido falls, shaking his head in disbelief. 'Cesca comes out into the hallway, crying and saying that she and Guido are married. Tony slumps, becoming almost robotic and contorted. He leans over to comfort her, pulling her to him in an embrace. At first she's tender and remorseful in his arms. "He loved me, really loved me," she tells her brother. Then she realizes she's in the arms of Guido's murderer. Crying out, "Don't touch me. Don't come near me. You're not my brother. Don't you think I know. Murderers. He kills people. He kills everybody. He kills everything. He's a butcher. That's what you are--a butcher", she separates herself from him, as she goes running out of the building.
Tony goes back to his steel reinforced apartment as the police are arriving. His henchman Angelo is shot, yet takes a phone message from Tony's girlfriend Poppy, and dies ecstatically. Tony, in his robotic state can't talk to Poppy, who as a material "thing" means nothing to him since all he was doing was meant to impress 'Cesca. At that time 'Cesca opens the door quietly holding a gun. Standing against the dark door, cloaked in black, her eyes are wide and her face determined. She enters, and stands looking at Tony, her face full of emotion, her eyes in tears. Tony turns and sees her. He looks like a confused and wounded animal, regressing to a primitive state by sucking on a finger. His face is surrounded by shadow so that his scar is barely noticeable, and her heart goes out to him in forgiveness as she embraces him. Asking why she doesn't shoot, 'Cesca says, "I don't know....maybe it's because you're me and I'm you...its always been that way". Together they face the police or the "monkees" (in an inversion on how Camonte is meant to be seen) as the, now, potent Scarface, calls them.
Through these opening levels of awareness on Tony and 'Cesca's parts, Hawks, the director, and Hecht, the writer, reveal Scarface at his most intimate and illicit sexual self. When 'Cesca calls him, a "butcher who kills everything" and later joins him erotically, all the linkages are brought together. It is in this erotic relationship that the true evil emerges and the linkage between sexuality and murdering is made palpable. Scarface is the primitive hunted animal seeking power and identity through the illicit sexual relationship between him and his sister. As, together, they fight the police, the representatives of decency, morality, and law-- they finally realize their relationship. 'Cesca cries out in joy "because you're me and I'm you...it's always been that way."
In Sander Gilman's The Jew's Body, he reveals how anti-Semitic images of the Jew were linked to sexual crime. Jack the Ripper in London was thought to be a Jew because, through his sadistic killing of prostitutes, he received sexual gratification.(22) In the official police document it was written:
One did not need to be a Sherlock Holmes to discover that the criminal was a sexual maniac of a virulent type.... and that if he was not living absolutely alone his people knew of his guilt and refused to give him up to justice....And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were low-class Jews, for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their number to Gentile justice. (23)
Gilman goes on to point out that Jack was also seen as a former Jewish ritual slaughterer or a shochet. He goes on, "This image of Jack as the shochet rested on the long association in the Western imagination between Jews and the mutilated, diseased, different-looking genitalia. The Jewish mark of sexual difference --circumcision-- was closely associated with the notion of Jack the syphilitic so that Jack the Ripper evoked in the minds of many the image of a foreign, syphilitic, mutilated butcher-Jew."(24) From this description we have a very accurate picture of Scarface, the evil deviant Jew, masked as the Italian gangster, chosen to be the physical and psychic embodiment of the evil, sexual butcher.
Yet this doesn't last because society won't allow it. 'Cesca is shot and is about to die. Camonte cries out to her not to leave him. He's no good by himself, he says. But, 'Cesca hearing the fear in his voice as she slips away to death, switches her allegiance and joins the dead Guido. Similarly, to when the criminal Jew in Oliver Twist, Fagin, is trapped or the "outsider" Shylock is bested in Merchant of Venice -- Scarface is nothing without the illicit things that give him power and he is relegated to a cowardly, sniveling, deformed being. He is killed, after pleading for mercy, trying to "make a break for it". Interestingly, this was not the original ending Hecht wrote. Hecht wrote a semi-heroic ending, as Scarface runs out the door of his home, through a hail of bullets, up to the cop who has been pursuing him, points a gun at his face and fires. His revolver is empty, though. The cop shoots him and Scarface falls dead, still clicking his gun. In this way Scarface stays deviant, unrepentant, even though at his very core, he is impotent. Hawks reworked it, possibly because it was too heroic. Perhaps Hecht wrote this original ending because he felt some empathy with Scarface and wanted him to leave the world with a sense of pride.
IV. The Choice of Muni and His Contextualized Response
As an actor of power on stage, Muni could bring the larger than life figure of Scarface vividly to the screen and into the imaginations of the public. But Muni as the "man of a thousand faces", as a Jewish performer who brought the emotional qualities of Yiddish acting, as a Jew in the "outsider" roles that he had already performed and as a representative of the darker stereotypes of the Jew-- Scarface the character and Scarface the film became the apex of those perceptions. In choosing Muni for this role, Hughes brought together the two ethnicities that were the most feared in the United States in the 1930's. A poll in the Los Angeles Times, presented Jews and Italians as the least trusted ethnic groups. (25)
To further point this up, it is important to note one more scene in Scarface coming from a vaudeville routine called "the writ of habeus corpus". In its popular form, it is seen in the Marx Brothers 1930 film Animal Crackers, which was based on their stage routines. In Animal Crackers, Chico hears " get a writ of habeus corpus", but thinks what is being said is "get rid of H'Abie's corpse." Groucho then says, "Didn't you ever see Habeas' corpus." To which Chico replies, "No, but I saw Abie's Irish Rose."(26) This exchange locates the joke not only as dialect humor, but as a reference to Chico Marx as a Jew, masked as an Italian, telling a Jewish shyster (Groucho Marx), that he saw a Jewish/Irish play.
Scarface closely models this routine. Epstein, a shyster Jewish lawyer is always getting Scarface out of jail with a writ of habeus corpus. When Epstein saves Camonte a second time, Camonte calls it a writ of "hocus pocus". In this way the routine is referenced and the mask slips to the audience. Therefore, Epstein, in the "Groucho-Jewish-shyster lawyer" part and Camonte, masked in the Chico-Italian-Jewish part, encapsulates the Jewish/Italian masking done in Scarface, with an emphasis on the Jewish. This routine further highlights the perceptions and fears of the "otherness" of Jews, held at the time. A 1939 poll suggested that four of every ten Americans believed that anti-Semitism stemmed from the characteristics of Jews themselves.(27) In the same way that Jews who performed in blackface held the projected racist fantasies of the dominant American society, which also directed them towards Jews, so Muni playing Scarface, embodied evil drawn from images of Italian gangsters and anti-Semitic projections and fears.
How did Muni feel about all of this? By analyzing Muni's reactions in the aftermath of the 1932 film of Scarface, we can ascertain Muni's response to the demonization that was projected on him. While playing the justice crusading Jewish lawyer, George Simon in Counsellor-at-Law, Muni had a conversation with Howard Hughes about a year after Scarface was released. Hughes asked Muni to film more pictures with him and Muni in his characteristic directness refused, saying, "I thank you for the offer Mr. Hughes, but all during the time I was shooting Scarface, you didn't have the courtesy of coming on the set to shake my hand and say hello. You're just not the type of man I want to be associated with-- so I'll never work for you again."(28) On the face of this response we can surmise that he resented Hughes' non-treatment of him. But from this we can further extrapolate that Muni felt personally rejected, isolated, an "outsider"-- and from that, it is not too much of a leap to believe that he felt demonized. So, while playing a role that embodied demonization, Muni's personal feelings of being rejected must also have caused a personal realization of demonization. Therefore, Muni, on some level, must have realized that he was chosen for the role of Scarface because his personal characteristics were seen as lending themselves to demonization. This article has tried to show that the characteristics of: being a former immigrant, exhibiting "otherness" in his acting style, often playing characters on the fringe of society, having ethnic/Yiddish qualities in his work, and being a Jew-- made him that choice.
Behind the mask of the gangster-Italian immigrant, was the image of the evil, predator-Jew, demonized through Hitlerism in Europe and in this country as well, by such popular radio personalities as Father Coughlin. "At one point, late in 1930, Coughlin ventured beyond his initial theme, warning that "Shylocks" in London and on Wall Street were concerned only with returns on their heavy European investments.... In 1934 Coughlin lashed out at Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau 'and his Jewish cohorts', who had acted like 'Dillingers in plotting against the American people'." (29)
Muni's response was not only a rejection of Hughes' offer, but everything he represented to Muni. As Muni gained more and more control over his career in film, he, seemingly, worked to neutralize hate towards Jews and other "outsiders". His roles embodied themes of social justice and ethnicity. His later screen portrayals reflected the importance of the individual seeking justice. Films, such as I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Louis Pasteur, The Good Earth, and most notably The Life of Emile Zola, were landmark in that regard. All embodied the search for justice in the characters he played, and in order for him to feel comfortable, all needed masking in strong characterizations for him to find his acting impulse. Yet, the masking was not to create demonic "outsiders", but to present to the public Muni's perception of what was good about the "outsider". In so doing he was also signalling to the Jewish public a portrayal of Jewish values through a search for justice.
This exhibits itself most clearly in Muni's greatest film project, The Life of Emile Zola, about the French novelist who crusaded for justice and worked to save the French-Jewish soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, who had been unjustly accused of spying in the 1880's by the French government, just because he was a Jew. The film was conceived by Muni and made by Warner Brothers over 1935-37. At the time that the film was made, Hitler had come to power in Germany, the Nuremburg Laws had gone into effect, and anti-Semitism in this country was reaching an all-time high. The courage of Muni and Warner Brothers to do a picture of this magnitude with the subtext of fighting anti-Semitism, has been extraordinarily underestimated by film historians because the context of Muni's life has never been placed alongside the project. In Lester Friedman's book Hollywood's Image of the Jew, he criticises Emile Zola for its indirectness in its statement against anti-Semitism. He writes, "Unfortunately, the movie lacks any conscience of its own. It almost totally ignores the blatant anti-Semitism that destroys Dreyfus' career." (30)
This article has taken pains to show, that it was not only difficult to be a public Jew at this time but the coping mechanisms necessary to be Jewish necessitated a masking approach, which meant covertness. Rather than criticising Warner's and Muni for hiding the Jewishness of Dreyfus (it is seen in the film, on a document, when Dreyfus is chosen as the victim), these scholars should place the film in the context of its time and in the perceptions of its audiences. In its time it was seen as the most definitive and eloquent statement against Naziism on film. Warner Brothers paid tribute to Muni with "Mr." in front of his name on movie marquees and he was featured on the cover of TIME on August 16, 1937. Here is how the preview, with Muni in attendance was described:
I witnessed an unforgettable scene. As Paul Muni left the theatre, the audience jammed the stairs, lobbies, aisles and sidewalks to render homage to him in an ovation such as I have never witnessed. It was almost--if not quite--as thrilling as the portrayal he had just given upon the screen. The great crowd did not mob Muni in its enthusiasm. Rather it parted so that he might pass through, bowing acknowledgement. For there was respect amounting to awe mingled with the ecstatic enthusiasm inspiring the demonstration. (31)When Jewish audiences saw Muni, they saw the former Yiddish Theatre actor as a Jewish actor championing freedom, not only for Dreyfus -- one of their own, but for their brothers and sisters in Nazi Germany, plagued at this time with anti-Semitic laws, and (unbeknown to them) on the brink of annihilation. How could they not feel Jewish pride when they heard Muni deliver his climactic speech in the film as Emile Zola, encouraging the U.S., across the decades, to change its isolationist policy and to take action against Nazi Germany? Muni, as Zola, said:
From my struggling youth until today my principle aim has been to strive for truth. What does it matter if an individual is shattered if only justice is resurrected? Is the suffering of one person worth the disturbance of a great country? At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice...before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent. May all (my work) that melt away. May my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent!
The film won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1937, but ironically, Muni lost for best actor to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous.
The above speech meant more to Muni than any other he had ever delivered. When he went to Tel Aviv in then-Palestine, not long after the showing of this film, it was this speech, among Yiddish monologues, that he delivered to thunderous applause.(32) As Muni related to an interviewer in response to a question about choosing material, sometimes a choice had to be made because it had something to say. "Each of us, it would seem to me, has, whether consciously, or unconsciously, a kind of inner protest about something....You feel that certain things need to be said....(and in response to a statement about Zola)...It was during the Hitler period, it was during the anti-Semitic period. Surely we have our emotions, our feelings, our reasons."(33) Considering his past and the struggles he had to endure, he spoke as a Jew to his audiences about all Jews everywhere. But Muni did even more. He spoke as Muni Weisenfreund, the Yiddish actor become Jewish-American Paul Muni, and through his masking he lived the dialectic of being Jewish-American in its perceived shadow-side and the perceived heroism of the "outsider". From Scarface, to Emile Zola, and beyond-- Muni, though masked due to the backdrop of anti-Semitism, made a strong appeal to empathize with the plight of the victims in America and on the world stage.
(1) Ella Shohat, Ethnicities in Relation: Toward a Multicultural Reading of American Cinema, in Unspeakable Images ed. Lester Friedman, pp. 215
(2) Jerome Lawrence, Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni, G.P. Putnam and Sons, New York, 1974. pp. 60-62. From ongoing conversations between Lawrence, Muni and his wife Bella.
(3) Charles Musser, in his article Role-playing and Film Comedy, in Unspeakable Images ed. Lester Friedman, pp. 43
(4) Lester Friedman, Hollywood's Image of the Jew, Ungar Pbl. Co., 1982. pp. 65 and Irving Howe, World of Our Fathers, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York, 1976. pp. 558 and 563
(5) R. Dana Skinner, Our Changing Theatre, Dial Press Inc., New York, 1931. pp 287
(6) J. Lawrence, Actor, op. cit. pp. 94. April 13, 1973. Recorded interview between Lawrence and Strasberg. (7) Paul Robeson, Scandalize My Name, Classics Record Library, Time Life Records, New York, 1976. Side 5. An anthology of recordings.
(8) Actor, op. cit. pp. 107
(9) Actor, op. cit. pp. 123
(10) Lester Friedman, Hollywood's Image of the Jew, Ungar Publ. Co. New York, 1982. pp 16-17
(11) Hollywood's Image of the Jew, op. cit. pp. 18
(12) Hollywood's Image of the Jew, op. cit. pp 49 from The Jazz Singer ed. Robert Carriger, The Univ. of Wisc. Press: Madison, 1979. pp 11
(13) Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, University of California Press: Berkley, 1996. Unfortunately, this book came out right before my article was finished and I didn't have the time to give it the rightful attention it deserves. Rogin also published an earlier version in Critical Inquiry 18 (Spring 1992) "Blackface White Noise: The Jazz Singer Finds His Voice" pp. 417-453; Paul Buhle and Edward Portnoy, "Al Jolson in Black and White", Tikkun Vol. 11, No. 6, (Nov.-Dec. 1996) pp. 67-70. A review of the Rogin book; Irving Howe, The World of Our Fathers, Harcourt Brace and Jovanovich, New York 1976. pp. 562-63.
(14) Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts, Perpetua Edition, 1964. pp. 175 and 178.
(15) Actor, op. cit. pp 157. August 30, 1973. Recorded interview with Howard Hawks. Lawrence remarks how Hawks saw Muni on stage and refers to his watching eye as a camera.
(16) Michael Druxman, Paul Muni: His Life and Films, Barnes and Co., London, 1974. pp. 58 From a review of the play by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times.
(17) Howard Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, Alfred A. Knopf, 1992. pp. 348.
(18) Sander Gilman, The Jew's Body, Routledge, New York, 1991. pp. 124
(19) Actor, op. cit. pp 156. Interview with Hawks.
(20) William MacAdams, Ben Hecht, A Biography: The Man Behind the Legend, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1990. pp. 124-137.
(21) The Jew's Body, )Op. Cit. pp. 120
(22) Ibid, pp. 104-127
(23) Ibid, pp. 115-116
(24) Ibid, pp. 119
(25) Howard Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, op cit. pp. 457.
(26) Musser, Role-playing and Film Comedy. Op. Cit. pp. 62
(27) Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, Op. Cit. pp 457
(28) Actor, Op. Cit. pp 166
(29) Sachar, A History of the Jews in America, Op. Cit. pp. 453-54.
(30) Lester Friedman, Hollywood's Image of the Jew, Ungar Pbl., New York, 1982. pp. 78
(31) Lawrence, Actor, Op. Cit. pp. 234
(32) Lawrence, Actor, Op. Cit. pp. 237
(33) Lewis Funke and John E. Booth, Actors Talk About Acting, Avon Book Division, New York, 1961. pp. 166-167
Copyright 2004 by David Chack. All rights reserved.
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