Feb 11, 2014

Paul Muni, The Story of Louis Pasteur

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actor | Venice Film Festival - Best Actor
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, I guess. Oscar has always been fascinated by "important" pictures, even more so if it feels important and is about a real person. No other studio made better films of this niche back in the 1930's than Warner Bros., and it seems no other actor was good enough for these vehicles than Paul Muni. After having tackled real-life stories about chain gang injustice and coal miner unions, in 1936 Warner Bros. and Muni set off into the annals of history to tackle...microbiology. The Story of Louis Pasteur is about the man who discovered the cures for anthrax and rabies, so if you're expecting intrigue and excitement, look elsewhere. And while Muni's performance here wasn't as bad as his horrid turn in Black Fury, it's also really nothing to write home about.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-02-06at93212PM.jpgLegend has it (and by legend I mean Inside Oscar) that many industry folks who were apart of the Screen Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild didn't like the Academy and thus didn't want to partake in voting. That meant that a vast number of Academy voters were studio employees--namely, MGM and Warner Bros. "Vote-swapping and back-scratching was going on. Since Warners' Paul Muni was appearing in MGM's just-released The Good Earth, Variety reasoned that Warners would help MGM push the expensive The Great Ziegfeld for Best Picture if MGM assisted the Warner star in the Best Actor tournament." So for the second consecutive year, Warner Bros. used dirty politics to push Paul Muni towards gold, and this time it actually worked. I'm not sure what to make of Muni's work in The Story of Louis Pasteur. In general, his acting style isn't for me...he always manages to be intense in a very overstated manner. But his cause isn't helped at all by The Story of Louis Pasteur's terrible screenplay (and it won Best Screenplay that year to boot--one of my picks for worst wins of the decade). There's something really ridiculous in watching Muni give us a crash-course microbiology lesson, or worry about whether or not some sheep have died from anthrax, or freak out on a fellow doctor about proper hand-washing. Muni is always good at transforming himself visually. The way he presents himself physically is convincing; I do believe I'm looking at a weaker, older man by the end of the picture. But it seems like visually is as far as it goes with Muni, as his acting is almost always on, always visible. Watching his face as he talks about germs, I am aware at all times that I'm watching Paul Muni ACTING. His problem is that he takes himself too seriously (though at least this time around he didn't feel the need to try a French accent, thank the Gods).  None of it ever reads as innate or natural. His taking himself so seriously ends up really silly, especially when we he has to debate with his adult peers about the dangers of germs and the importance of hand sanitation. The Story of Louis Pasteur is corny as hell, nothing more than a glorified public service announcement, and that in turn affects the lead actor. But its self-importance stinks, and both picture and actor had no business being in the running as the best anything of that year.

1 comment:

  1. That's rather harsh criticism for a film and a performance I like rather more than you. I say "rather", that is, because much of what you say rings true. There's a supercilious gravitas this film conveys that is quite off-putting. It seems to be congratulating itself at every turn for being so 'important', and Muni definitely joins in. Still, I was entertained by the film and found myself drawn into it through Muni's performance.

    Some of his mannerisms have no place in film acting, but this was true of many performances in early sound films (i.e., the 1930s). Sound film was still relatively new and these actors were trained either in theater or on silent film stages. Some made the shift and some didn't, but many struggled with adapting what they knew to a new medium. This is everywhere apparent in Muni's screen work. I thought his Louis Pasteur had some of his more subdued work alongside some of his hammiest, but there was enough there for me to admire. Still, the Academy liked its 'ham' in those days so this was made to order for Oscar.