- Historic Sites
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
Paul Muni. Because Jack Warner confused overacting with great acting, he decreed that whenever Muni’s name appeared on a movie poster or advertisement, it must be preceded by the honorific Mr. Warner was not alone in regarding Muni as the greatest actor in films. Muni himself shared that opinion, and by the end of the 1930s he wielded enough power to get his brother (a public school teacher in the Bronx) imported to Hollywood to rework John Huston’s script for Juarez . The Motion Picture Academy was equally impressed with Muni, nominating him for a best-actor award on numerous occasions and finally handing him an Oscar for his performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). In fairness to Muni, it must be said he was very good at imitating foreign accents and regional speech patterns, but he never let you forget that he was acting and that acting was a very difficult thing to do.
Joel McCrea, on the other hand, never seemed to be acting, so the critics ignored him, failing to notice that he, too, could play a variety of roles, even if he didn’t use different accents. Tall, handsome, but gentle and modest, he was perfect in support of highpowered glamour girls—particularly good at listening to them. But he also played rugged outdoor heroes, cowboys, playboys, inventors, reporters, pilots, and movie producers and could go from melodrama in one film to sophisticated comedy in the next. Consider some of his films: Foreign Correspondent and The Most Dangerous Game (thrillers), Bird of Paradise (South Seas love story), These Three (serious drama), The More the Merrier (wartime romance), Sullivan’s Travels (satire on Hollywood), The Palm Beach Story (screwball farce), and his last film, one of the best Westerns ever made, Ride the High Country . It was rumored in Hollywood that he got all the roles Gary Cooper turned down, but I much prefer McCrea at comedy, and I always found Cooper’s “aw, shucks” shyness in his love scenes a bit much. Besides, McCrea, unlike Cooper, never deigned to get a face-lift or wear a hairpiece.