|Index||2 reviews in total|
Jerome Lawrence worked with Paul Muni in the Broadway production of
"Inherit the Wind", and their friendship led to Lawrence writing Muni's
life story "Actor", one of the best show-biz biographies ever
published. This 1978 TV musical is ostensibly a dramatisation of
Lawrence's excellent book. Actually, this TV special "Actor, the Paul
Muni Story" will tell you almost bupkis about Paul Muni's life or
career ... but it's an enjoyable low-budget musical that celebrates the
Jewish travelling players of Eastern Europe and the vital Yiddish
theatres of Second Avenue in the early twentieth century. And it's a
The story is told in an ill-chosen flashback structure. Hollywood, 1936: Paul Muni (well-played by Michael Kidd) returns to his home with the Oscar he has just won for "The Story of Louis Pasteur". Muni's wife Bella (always at his side in real life) is strangely absent here, so he strikes up a conversation with his Mexican manservant. They discuss the distinction between the concepts of 'macho' and 'mensch'. This leads to the main story, which is supposedly about the childhood experiences of young Muni Weisenfreund ... but which is really about Muni's parents, who were itinerant entertainers. Herschel Bernardi and sweet Georgia Brown give the best performances of their career in "Actor".
It's been said that theatre is "a plank and a passion". Bernardi and Brown prove it here, performing several delightful musical numbers with minimal props but with maximum talent. The songs are pleasant but never quite top-notch: I especially enjoyed "Kunye Lemel", a novelty song about a stock character in Yiddish comedy. The Weisenfreunds are unable to make a decent living in Europe, so they bring their two young sons to New York and try to prosper in the Yiddish theatre. Young (Paul) Muni and his older brother Joseph are minor characters in "Actor", played by two insipid child actors.
The flashback ends rather abruptly, returning us to Michael Kidd (who, regrettably, is given no chance to display his own considerable song-and-dance talents in this musical) when the grown-up Paul Muni puts his Oscar on the shelf. This is a nice little show, but don't expect to learn anything about Paul Muni here. For that, I recommend Jerome Lawrence's book "Actor".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Herschel Bernardi had a long career in movies and television - he even
starred in a show called ARNIE that was briefly on television in the
1960s. But unfortunately he is rather forgotten today, although usually
a very capable performer. I think part of the problem is a resemblance
(to me, anyway) to Herb Edelman, also a good, but lesser performer -
but one lucky enough to have a successful running role in the show THE
GOLDEN GIRLS which is still in syndication. So people still recall
Edelman because they can see him on cable networks. Unless they see
films like IRMA LA DOUCE or LOVE WITH A PROPER STRANGER (he was the
corrupt police chief in the former and the older brother of Natalie
Wood in the latter) you won't catch Bernardi too frequently.
Bernardi was (like David Opatashu and Molly Picon, and Luther Adler) one of the last actors that had any experience in the once very vital Yiddish Theater. He once did the narration on a pretty interesting documentary about the Yiddish theater and Yiddish films. So his casting here as Paul Muni's father (Nahum Faivel Weissenfreund), a struggling actor with his wife Georgia Brown (Salche Weissenfreund) in Europe and America is quite good casting - he knows what he is dealing with.
Yiddish Theater peaked in the period from 1900 to 1939, when troops of actors speaking Yiddish could appear in plays in theaters in Eastern Europe and the United States' main cities (especially New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Cincinatti). But the Holacaust killed off the bulk of the audiences who spoke Yiddish, and those in the U.S. slowly assimilated so that - aside from words grafted into English like "schlamiel" or "bupkis" - most of the language became dead. It's a pity, but that is what kills languages, and their resulting cultures.
There were sizable surviving fragments. Some major writers who used Yiddish are still widely read (in translation, usually): Solomon Rabinowitz ("Sholem Aleichem" of the "Tevye the Dairyman stories that became FIDDLER ON THE ROOF), Isaac Besheves Singer (Nobel Prize winner, who's YENTL became a Barbara Streisand movie), and Sholem Asch (author of THE NAZARENE). But most of the writers, like dramatist and novelist Abraham Goldfadden, are totally forgotten today except by scholars.
But Nahum and Salche are not facing this at the beginning of this musical. We see them as street performers in Eastern Europe, doing a number about a simpleton played by Salche (a "Kuni Lemill" in Yiddish - one of these inspired idiots whom Nahum calls "the riddle of the human race"). Salche is expecting, and soon gives birth to their son Muni. And with a growing family Nahum is desperate to try to get a reputation in the Yiddish Theater, but he can't really get into it. So he decides to take his family to "the provinces" of the U.S. to get ahead.
The show really chronicles the struggle of Nahum and Salche (and eventually their sons Muni and Joseph) in the American half of the Yiddish Theater. Nahum tries everything - even trying to show what a good actor he is by faking a heart attack in the middled of belting out a song at a try-out (it doesn't work too well). We see them perform Yiddish vaudeville skits, with the boys, The growth of Muni is not shown as much as one would wish - but he does start noting how old men walk and move (Paul Muni's film career has many old men parts in it: Zola, Pasteur, Juarez, Joseph Elsener in A SONG TO REMEMBER - this is how he was able to pick up his abilities to do these roles). The disintegration of the marriage between Salche and Nahum (who plays around) is noted too.
The television play was very good, setting up a time and place that is gone forever. Bernardi and Brown were terrific in their parts. I do wish more could be done with Michael Kidd as the older Paul Muni (who is reminiscing in his retirement about his roots - and does learn at the end that his style of acting is now recognized as a model for emulation). But the conclusion is his acknowledgment that he owed his fame and success to his parents, and we watch Bernardi at the end (now long dead - but in his son's memories) singing about being "An actor...an actor".
|Main details||Your user reviews||Your vote history|