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1939: Hollywood's Golden Year
Remind Me


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In the 1930s, actor Paul Muni was Warner Brothers' most important and powerful male star. After appearing in a series of socially conscious dramas, he made two excellent historical biographies directed by William Dieterle: The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and The Life of Emile Zola (1937). Both were successful at the box office, and started a vogue for biographical films.

Beginning in 1937, producer Hal Wallis and associate producer Henry Blanke began developing a film biography about the tragic Maximilian, Hapsburg Emperor of Mexico in the 1860s, and his wife, Carlotta, who were foisted on the Mexicans by Emperor Louis Napoleon of France. Led by the patriot Benito Juarez, the Mexicans revolted. Carlotta went mad, and Maximilian was overthrown and executed. The producers acquired a novel called The Phantom Crown, and a play about the couple, and writer Aeneas MacKenzie began doing research. Eventually, MacKenzie, John Huston, and Wolfgang Reinhardt wrote a script based on 372 volumes of research.

What happened next depends on which account of the film you are reading. According to Wallis' autobiography and a biography of Muni, the focus of the movie shifted to Juarez as the screenplay took shape. That's when the producers began to think of retitling it Juarez (1939) and casting Muni as "the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico" (other sources say it was always intended to be a Muni vehicle). John Huston claimed that Wallis pronounced the finished script one of the best he'd ever read, but once Muni saw it, he demanded changes so that he would have more dialogue, and brought in his brother-in-law to make those changes. Muni was powerful enough that the studio allowed him to make the changes. "Paul Muni really ruined Juarez," Huston claimed.

Whichever version one believes, this much is true: the story is peculiarly constructed, in that Juarez and Maximilian never meet. So Juarez was actually shot as two films, with the Maximilian-Carlotta story shot first. Then it was shown to Muni, and he made notes on further script changes before he shot the Juarez sequences. Then the two stories were intercut in the editing process. Some believe this anomaly in the screenplay ultimately doomed the film to failure, since its two protagonists never confront each other.

Paul Muni, as was his habit when playing a historical character, did his own meticulous research. Along with Wallis, Blanke, and Dieterle (who was once again directing), Muni traveled to Mexico to examine historical sites and learn as much as he could about Juarez. Muni even interviewed two very elderly survivors of Juarez's army to find out what the great man was like. Makeup artist Perc Westmore transformed Muni's face, even changing his bone structure with makeup to resemble Juarez . The transformation took three hours every day but studio head Jack Warner wasn't happy about Muni's look. "You mean we're paying Muni all this dough and we can't even recognize him?" he grumbled.

Bette Davis pleaded for the role of Carlotta, even though it was a minor part and not deemed worthy of the studio's most important female star. But the character had a wonderful mad scene, and Davis knew that she could play it superbly (and did). But in spite of Davis' showy histrionics, and Muni's stolid underplaying of the taciturn Juarez, acting honors went to Brian Aherne's affecting portrayal of the tragic Maximilian. It was Aherne's best performance, and earned him an Academy Award nomination as best supporting actor.

John Garfield, playing Porfirio Diaz, one of Juarez's fellow freedom fighters, appears only in a few scenes. Muni had known Garfield when both worked in theater in New York. When Juarez was in pre-production, Garfield was newly arrived in Hollywood, and Muni noticed his name on a list of contract players. Muni asked that Garfield be cast in a small role in Juarez. But by the timeJuarez went into production, Garfield had become an overnight star in Four Daughters (1938), and the studio thought he was too important for such a minor role. But Garfield wanted to do it, and with Muni backing him, he ended up playing Diaz. In the rushes, Garfield looked great, but his Bronx-Mexican accent was ludicrous. Some thought was given to replacing him, but he remained in the film because of his undeniable box-office clout. Garfield got the worst reviews of the film. Clearly, he was much too contemporary and urban for period roles, and would never play one again.

Because Juarez was a "prestige" film, the studio spared no expense. The historical accuracy of makeup and costume is as remarkable as the elaborate sets and art direction. Costume designer Orry-Kelly costumed more than 1,000 extras, as well as dozens of leading and supporting players. The art department built 54 huge sets, including whole villages, as well as castles and palaces in Europe and Mexico. The most impressive of these was Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Cinematographer Tony Gaudio's lighting design was stunning, particularly in Carlotta's mad scene, and he was nominated for an Academy Award.

Reviews for Juarez were respectful, but not really enthusiastic, although the performances of Muni, Davis and Aherne earned raves. Somehow the critics felt cheated by the structure of the film, and thought it was unbalanced. Of Muni's three biographical films, it was the least successful, and he never again made another movie biography. But critics then and now agree that whatever its faults, Juarez is worth seeing for its beauty, spectacle, fine performances, and the integrity with which it depicts history.

Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: John Huston, Wolfgang Reinhardt, Aeneas MacKenzie (based on the novel, The Phantom Crown by Bertita Harding, and the play Juarez and Maximilian by Franz Werfel)
Editor: Warren Low
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Principal Cast: Paul Muni (Benito Juarez), Bette Davis (Empress Carlotta von Hapsburg), Brian Aherne (Maximilian von Hapsburg), Claude Rains (Louis Napoleon), John Garfield (Porfirio Diaz), Donald Crisp (Marechal Bazaine), Gale Sondergaard (Empress Eugenie), Joseph Calleia (Alejandro Uradi).
BW-121m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri



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