The Valiant (1929)
An adaptation of a play by Holworthy Hall and Robert Middlemass, The Valiant stars Muni as a murderer who confesses his crime to the police, willingly accepts his death sentence and even pens a series of newspaper articles while on death row - "The Folly of Youth Crime" - to save others from his fate. Yet he never reveals his true identity to the police or to the world. Muni is far more restrained and measured here than in his breakout performance in Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932), defining the character through stillness and the steadiness of his strong, sure voice. When his sweet, gray-haired mother (Edith Yorke) sees his picture in the paper, she becomes convinced that it could be her long-lost son, Joe, who has been missing since the war. Her daughter Mary (Marguerite Churchill) travels to the prison to question the man and see if this is the big brother she remembers. Future cowboy star Johnny Mack Brown, at the time a rising young romantic lead, plays Mary's supportive fiancé.
The struggles to find a new cinematic style to incorporate the added dimension of human voice and sound effects (not to mention music) in the early sound era define a great many films between 1928 and 1930. The Valiant is a fine illustration of the growing pains. It opens like a silent movie with sound effects: a gunshot from behind a closed door, a man shuffling out of the apartment, seen as an unidentified silhouette or an ominous shadow on the wall until his face is finally revealed. As he works his way to the street, director William K. Howard -- a successful director of silent movies making his first sound film -- contrasts Muni's stillness and silence with the bustle and din of activity on a New York tenement street. Yet dialogue scenes suddenly become still and static with neither the camera nor the actors able to move. Microphones, which had little range in 1929, were hidden in the set or suspended from above and actors were forced to stick close to them to get a clear recording. In some scenes, according to Muni's wife Bella, "Muni had to have microphones attached to the inside of his jacket. Imagine trying to play a dramatic scene under those circumstances!"
Muni had been brought to Hollywood by Fox on the strength of a screen test and shooting began while studio head William Fox was away from Hollywood. When he returned, he was appalled at the rushes. He found Muni's performance lacking in screen charisma and sex appeal and almost shut the film down. Since so much had already been invested in the sets and a substantial amount of completed footage, he relented and let The Valiant go forward, but with a greatly reduced budget. The production was scaled back, scenes were cut, and the finished film clocked in at just over an hour. The Valiant wasn't a great financial success but it received strong reviews and earned Muni an Academy Award nomination for his performance, the first of six in his long career.
Producer: William K. Howard
Director: William K. Howard
Screenplay: Tom Barry, John Hunter Booth (writer); Holworthy Hall, Robert Middlemass (play)
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot, Glen MacWilliams
Film Editing: Jack Dennis
Cast: Paul Muni (James Dyke), Marguerite Churchill (Mary Douglas), DeWitt Jennings (Warden Holt), Henry Kolker (Judge), Edith Yorke (Mrs. Douglas), Richard Carlyle (Father Daly), Johnny Mack Brown (Robert Ward), Clifford Dempsey (Police Lieutenant), George C. Pearce (Dr. Edmondson).
by Sean Axmaker
Paul Muni: His Life and Films, Michael B. Druxman, A.S. Barnes and Co.
Actor: The Life and Times of Paul Muni, Jerome Lawrence, G.P. Putnam and Sons