Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Valiant (1929)

Thanks to TCM’s daylong celebration of the preservation efforts of the George Eastman House, I was able to view Paul Muni’s first film effort, The Valiant, directed by William K. Howard and released by Fox in 1929. The film would earn the Austrian born, New York bred Muni the first of his six Academy Award nominations, each and every one in the Best Actor category. He’d lose the second-ever Best Actor statuette to colossal movie star Warner Baxter (In Old Arizona), but Muni’s time in the sun was coming: he would be nominated four times between 1934 and 1938, winning the award in 1937 for his portrayal of Louis Pasteur. (Muni bookended nicely: his last nomination came in 1960, in his final film, The Last Angry Man.) Along with his rival at Warner Brothers, Edward G. Robinson, Muni dominated screens in the thirties — his star exploding after title roles in a pair of 1932 films, Scarface, and the astonishing I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. All but forgotten by contemporary audiences, Muni was an actor’s actor and one of the biggest stars in the world. He was a chameleon, able to transform himself into whatever his role called for, whether it was suave gentility or brute physicality, regardless of age or nationality, and he could do any accent required — though he famously told Irving Thalberg that he was “about as Chinese as Herbert Hoover” when the boy wonder cast him in The Good Earth.

The Valiant opens auspiciously: Muni shoots an unseen man in some drab big city flat and wanders out onto the street, and eventually into the local precinct, where he confesses. In short order he’s thrown behind bars, tried, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Sing Sing — a rapid-fire chain of events that Muni takes in stride. He seems resigned to his fate in moralistic, Old Testament sort of way. He tells his captors his victim deserved to die, and that he realizes that he too must be punished in accordance with the law.

The dramatic thrust of the film lies not in the identity of the victim or the motive for the crime, but in the real name of the killer himself, which Muni stubbornly refuses to divulge. Instead, he assembles the moniker “James Dyke” from a police station wall calendar. (The earliest instance of this particular film cliché I’m aware of.) Cut to the prison, where we learn that not only is Dyke a model inmate, but that his sensational case has even provided him the opportunity to write moralizing newspaper editorials, making his story and face known to a fascinated nation. In Ohio, the elderly Mrs. Douglas sees the condemned man in the paper and wonders if he could be her son Joe, gone without a trace these fifteen years. Her daughter Mary and Mary’s fiancé Robert (the popular Johnny Mack Brown) make the trip to New York in an effort to learn the truth, but although the film makes it abundantly clear to the audience that James Dyke certainly is Joe Douglas, Joe is able to convince the desperate young woman that he is not the loving older brother who used to read Romeo and Juliet to her when she was a little girl. Instead, in the sort of turn that could only happen in an early Hollywood tearjerker, “Dyke” claims to have known a man named Joe Douglas during the war, and to have seen the youth die heroically in the trenches. I’ll call it quits after this in order to spare as much of the ending as possible — Mary is then able to leave the prison with her chin up, believing that her brother died a hero and now able to return home to marry free and clear of any potential scandal.

This is an engaging movie, and thankfully it’s short enough (only 66 minutes) that one can get through it without ever feeling taxed. First is Muni: the abilities that would see him become the preeminent dramatic actor of the thirties are evident; he’s simply light years ahead of everyone else in the film in terms of ability and intuiting the medium. More than that though, Muni has that intangible something, the charisma, the screen presence, the “it” that has characterized actors such as Cagney, Dean, and De Niro throughout film history. The Valiant is a rudimentary early talkie, but Muni owns the thing.

Speaking of which, the film is notable for its technical accomplishment. While the cameras are static (there are a few close-ups), and the sets are theatrical, there are some fine “special effects” shots that appear during various flashback sequences, when a young Muni is superimposed over a medium shot of the character (usually his Whistler’s Mother-like ma) doing the remembering. And although it boasts no musical score, the sound in the Eastman print is crisp and clean, with all of the spoken dialogue easily understood. Part of that owes to the simplicity of the Oscar-nominated writing itself: a great many of the Fox theaters chains were rural (compared to those of Paramount and MGM), and consequently numerous Fox features were targeted at the uneducated or the unsophisticated, who nevertheless frequented American movie houses in droves. All of the characters deliver their lines deliberately, and with no small amount of silent-era pantomime, but it’s also apparent that the writing itself was been simplified in order to facilitate easy understanding. The narrative moral of the movie — and even its title — speak directly to rural audiences about the corruption of city life. A good mid-western boy was called to the war, and at its end was lured to the city instead of back to his home — and there he was obliged to do murder. Audiences are warned that even a young man worthy of the film’s title, The Valiant can still be ruined by the perils of the city, and that in forsaking his home and his family, he has sufficiently challenged the fates to destroy him.  

The Valiant (1929)
Directed by William K. Howard
Starring Paul Muni
Released by Fox Film Corporation (20th Century Fox) 
Running time: 66 minutes
Availability: Just aired on TCM, previously quite rare. Poor quality copies on 
Grade: B, historically significant. 

1 comment:

  1. I watched this film at the George Eastman House about seven years ago. My wife accompanied me and actually shed tears during Muni's climatic speech. I've been a huge Muni fan for years, particularly after seeing I AM A FUGITIVE as a child.