Juarez: What is it good for?

I can’t believe we watched JUAREZ right after NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. How many films about impotent yet oppressive emperors can a person’s system withstand? We were about to find out.

The film is turgid, uniting the occasional leaden tendencies of director William Dieterle (exemplary in his fleet-footedness when Jack Warner cracked the whip or when entrusted with taut thriller material, fully living up to his German nickname “The Iron Stove” when pursuing some dim idea of “quality”) with the dullness of the standard biopic, the worthy period drama, and the “prestige” super-production. Co-writer John Huston blamed Paul Muni, cast as Juarez himself, for insisting on more lines. Muni talks slowly and low, which would work if he said little, but he’s dragging out great long speeches. “It was always heavy weather with Muni.”

Muni also seems to be wearing a FALSE HEAD, something like a Klingon.

In terms of performance, up-and-comer John Garfield and flatliner Brian Aherne (as the hapless Emperor Max) do best. Brian has to act through a ludicrous whorly beard. I think they should have abandoned historical likenesses for this movie, though they needed someone who could more plausibly suggest Indian heritage than Muni. Of course, we were watching for Bette’s mad scenes, which are indeed OTT, but not as hysterical as we’d hoped. But her character’s slide into insanity does give the film it’s best, by far, cinematic moment. After arguing her husband’s case with Napoleon III (an oily Claude Rains, always welcome), building into greater and greater frenzy of emotion, she breaks down completely, her hold on reality snapping. Claude turns into a Halloween devil, lit from below, which is slightly absurd (he’s already got the melodramatic villain’s twirly waxed mustache) —

And Bette flees the room —

Into OUTER DARKNESS. A completely black void, extending in all directions forever. Into this abyss she runs, and Dieterle’s camera plunges madly after her, and we’re swallowed up.

Now THAT’S expressionism. I can say it made the film worthwhile, though if I’d seen the clip in isolation that would have served me just as well. But then that would have made me watch the whole film, which would have been an even more unrewarding experience if I’d already seen the good bit.

11 Responses to “Juarez: What is it good for?”

  1. Davis really does justice to that mad scene; remarkable to think that the actual Carlota was only 12 years dead when the film was made…

  2. David Melville Wingrove Says:

    Oh my God, I was right! Yes, that moment is indeed brilliant!

  3. Grant Skene Says:

    Paul Muni was such a ham. A man of obvious talent with absolutely no concept of how to use it. He seemed to think the greatness of a performance could be measured by the amount of prosthetics, facial tics, silly walks, and goofy accents. Generally delivered with humourless self-absorption. Juarez may be his nadir, but I struggle to think of a film that would not be improved by his absence after 1932. And I’m sure Edward G. Robinson would have been better in Scarface, and I’d love to see James Cagney in I’m a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

  4. Apparently Muni’s wife talked him into doing Scarface, but she was a diabolical influence from then on. Not that he needed encouragement.

    When they cast him, they recast Jack La Rue with George Raft, thinking JLR was too tall. So we got another star who didn’t know a good thing when he saw it, although at least Raft’s turning down of plum roles gave Bogart and Fred MacMurray opportunities they ran with.

    I’d have liked to see Jack in the lead with Raft beside him. The novelty of an actual Italianamerican playing a Capone substitute would have been decades ahead of its time, I guess.

    The Warner movie that takes the biscuit for timeliness is The Match King, rushed into production while role model Ivan Kreuger’s corpse was still warm.

  5. Also, can’t be too upset with giving Raft a career. All those Jerry Lewis cameos would make too little sense without it.

  6. La Faustin Says:

    JLR himself on the recasting: https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=cnIvAAAAIBAJ&sjid=YNsFAAAAIBAJ&pg=817,352985&dq=jack-la-rue+%7C+jack-larue+godfather&hl=en? Sounds like he was trying to upstage Muni, but in any event the pairing was a tautology of type — two big goons, although one was acting the role and the other came by it naturally. I’m reminded of Henry James (as one so often is when considering Jack La Rue) and the story THE REAL THING.

  7. Lovely interview! But I’m sorry he didn’t do something in The Godfather…

  8. David Wingrove Says:

    Paul Muni did the sort of acting that he did very ably indeed. But it’s acting of a style that happens to be out of fashion today. Or maybe not. He was, in many ways, a male equivalent of Meryl Streep!

  9. charles W. Callahan Says:

    Does anyone believe that F. F. Coppola considered Joseph Calleia for the role of Vito Corelone in The Godfather? I want to believe it, but I’m sure it’s myth. Old Joe was long gone from Hollywood by the time the movie was made.

  10. La Faustin Says:

    My gut feeling is that Coppola would have AVOIDED casting actors associated with old Warners-type gangster movies. There was a tradition, fairly recent then, of using them in comedies (SOME LIKE IT HOT, ROBIN AND THE SEVEN HOODS, lots of cameos) and I bet he would have wanted to avoid that mental association.

  11. Yeah… George Raft would be out. But he did cast Richard Conte and Sterling Hayden, both better known for crime pictures than JLR.

    As for Calleia, FCC was fighting to get Brando. So maybe as a negotiating tactic, he might have said, “Okay, if I can’t get Brando, I’ll take Joseph C,” causing Paramount to say “Okay, okay, Brando it is.”

    Richard Lester did the same thing when Warners didn’t want Richard Chamberlain for Petulia. He said, ‘Okay, I’ll settle for Andy Williams.'”

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