Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 6, 2014
Today is Paul Muni’s day here on TCM as we celebrate Summer Under the Stars and it immediately brings back a lot of memories. Way back when, Muni was the first actor of the thirties that I really became familiar with and whose movies I sought out. Once I got to see some of his work, I immediately became a fan. It’s not surprising as I have always liked chameleon actors and Muni was one of the best. Chameleon actors are the ones who never use their own persona in a role but adopt a new one, along with an accent, perhaps a walk, maybe even some facially altering makeup, when playing a part. They’ve been around for a long time, long before Muni, but Muni was the first one of the Talkies Era, the late twenties and early thirties when sound transformed the cinema.
Of course, when talking of the chameleons, there are few more notable than the king of the silent chameleons, Lon Chaney. Chaney was so good at disappearing into roles, both figuratively as character and literally behind makeup, that most people at the height of his popularity wouldn’t have recognized him on the street. His career started years before 1919′s The Miracle Man (sometime around 1912 but many roles and bit parts were uncredited so it’s hard to determine an exact first film for him) but that was the movie that really put him in the minds of moviegoers everywhere. The story concerns a four member group of con artists who plan to use a faith healer’s setup to swindle believers by convincing them the healing is real. After that, they’ll start asking people for donations to get healed and then hit the road. Chaney plays the Frog, a contortionist who poses as a crippled man to fool the crowd. He fools the crowd so well that a little boy watching, who actually does use crutches, is healed on the spot.
The Miracle Man is a lost film but, fortunately, the scene of Chaney writhing on the ground as The Frog in front of the crowd, and then straightening his body as he’s “healed” is available for viewing on YouTube. Another notable Chaney film now lost, except for stills and brief scenes, is London After Midnight, directed by Tod Browning and released in 1927. Sadly, it was not properly preserved.
Still, the work we do have from Chaney, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera, show a chameleon of extraordinary skill and talent. He died at the young age of 47 but not before completing his only sound film, The Unholy Three, in which he did five different voices, naturally. Had he lived, the Man of a Thousand Faces might have become known as the Man of a Thousand Voices, too.
Once the sound era opened, it paved the way for chameleons from the stage to make their way to the silver screen. Paul Muni was one of the first to really capitalize on the ability to transform into multiple characters and personalities rather than develop a popular persona which has been the Hollywood norm from the earliest days of cinema. Actors like Charlie Chaplin stretched that to its limit but throughout the decades, actors who have a cinematic persona (John Wayne, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Thelma Ritter) have always fared better than the chameleons who change from role to role. Muni was an exception and each new movie had moviegoers wondering what Muni would look and sound like in this one. From his heavy Italian accent in Scarface: Shame of a Nation to his physical transformation in The Good Earth, Muni rarely played a role using his own looks and voice. When he did though, as in I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, he was as powerful as ever. Muni was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Actor and won once, for The Story of Louis Pasteur. As the years progressed, his star dimmed, perhaps because he rarely let the public know who he was.
One of the only actors in history to develop both a definite persona and a chameleon-like quality was Bette Davis. There’s no doubt that Bette Davis was a force in the movies and no doubt she had a well developed persona built around her strength and determination. But for every role where she used her own look and voice, like the seminal All About Eve, there were others where she became someone else (Of Human Bondage, Jezebel, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Now Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, A Catered Affair, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, etc). Davis wasn’t afraid to look bad, sound coarse, and emote to the rafters. She’s not thought of as a chameleon the way Chaney and Muni are but that’s because she split her time between herself and the character throughout her career.
But while Chaney, Muni, and Davis played it straight most of the time, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers used their considerable talents for comedy. Guinness came first and played so many different characters with different looks and accents (just contrast him in The Ladykillers with his role in The Lavender Hill Mob and it’s like looking at two different actors) that in one movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets, he played an entire extended family, the D’Ascoynes, playing a variety of ages, personalities, accents, and both genders. That kind of chameleon virtuosity paved the way for one of Guinness’ costars in The Ladykillers, Peter Sellers. Sellers played multiple roles himself more than once but his greatest performance is probably the three-pronged attack of President Merkin Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove in the movie of the same name (Strangelove, that is, with How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb added for good measure).
Chameleon actors continue today, from the chameleon queen, Meryl Streep, to multiple Best Actor winner Daniel Day-Lewis and the always surprising Gary Oldman. But on this day, here at TCM, we celebrate the first chameleon actor of the sound period, Paul Muni, with 24 hours of great performances. The prime time slot goes to I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and it may be his best performance. He doesn’t wear any prosthetics or speak with an accent but he disappears into the role as he always did. It’s a great performance, one of many. And his day is a great way to pay tribute to all the chameleon actors, past and present.
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