Tuesday, September 22, 2009

“You betcha my life!”

Turner Classic Movies has been running a Paul Muni tribute all day in honor of the celebrated actor’s 114th birthday—and while Muni often gets a bad rap for overacting in many of his vehicles (I’ll admit that he can be a bit hammy—something which can be attributed to his years in the theater) I can’t deny that I do enjoy watching many of his early films (before he became Warner Bros.' answer to George Arliss): Scarface (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Dr. Socrates (1935), etc. (I’m also a fan of the 1935 melodrama Bordertown…though the film’s none-too-subtle racism is admittedly a bit off-putting.) One of Muni’s features that was shown today that I’m particularly fond of is Black Fury (1935), in which he plays an uneducated immigrant coal miner (a “bohunk”) who’s used as a pawn by a gang of union busters and later redeems himself in the eyes of his co-workers by playing a crucial role in ending a contentious coal strike. It had been a long time since I’d seen Fury—I may be exaggerating here a bit but I swear the last time I watched it the movie was on TNT, back before they knew drama—and so I made a concerted effort to tune in this morning to see how well it held up.

I was genuinely pleased with the results; using a Polish accent of which Meryl Steep would be envious (it helped a good deal that Fury was closed-captioned, because Muni’s character is very hard to understand at times), Muni creates a very likeable individual in Joe Radek—who’s not the smartest guy in the room but is so gregarious and fun-loving that very few of his fellow miners have anything bad to say about the guy. His best friend is Mike Shemanski (John Qualen), a minor player in the union to which he and Joe belong, and his girl is Anna Novak, well-played by TDOY fave Karen Morley (nice to see the two of them reunited after their initial appearances in Scarface). Joe has designs on walking Anna down that old familiar aisle, but she’s determined to get out of “Coaltown” and marries a coal company cop (William Gargan) to accomplish this. (Sadly, this necessitates that Ms. Morley be absent from the proceedings for most of the film—but it is important to move the plot along.) Radek, devastated by Anna’s departure (he had planned to buy a farm and “raise pigs and kids”), gets liquored up and then makes a noisy entrance at a local union meeting where a disgruntled miner named Steve Croner (J. Carroll Naish) has been stirring up unrest between the union’s leaders and members. Croner uses Joe to peel off a large segment of the union’s rank-and-file (Radek is everybody’s friend), which allows a sleazy union-busting agency to sign on as security for the mine (the top goon is played in typically despicable fashion by Barton MacLane) and forces the mine’s owners to employ scab workers after their previous agreement with the union is rendered null-and-void by the courts. Having become a pariah in Coaltown (Croner conveniently takes a powder once his work is done), Joe takes it upon himself to right the situation by rigging the mine with dynamite and refusing to let anyone inside until management and union agree to return to their old contract.

I’m sure my interest in the history of coal mining and unions (my grandfather spent a good many years in the mines, and because he had the benefit of a bit more education than his peers was hired by the government during the Depression to teach “bohunks” to read and write English) enhanced my enjoyment of Fury, a very realistic if at times dramatically uneven Warner Bros, “social drama” that takes full advantage of all of the studio’s familiar character actors (Vince Barnett, Tully Marshall, Henry O’Neill, Joe Crehan, Sara Haden, etc.) as well as showcasing a few performers that would later achieve a little more onscreen stature like Ward Bond (as one of the company cops) and Akim (billed as “Akin”) Tamiroff (as the farm owner negotiating with Muni). I also spotted Mike Mazurki in line as an applicant for the security detail and serial veteran Addison Richards turns up in a scene just before the end as a government official announcing the end of the strike (the youngest I’ve ever seen him, by the way). Sure, there are a few nitpicks here and there—I was a bit amazed by the lack of security at the mine when Muni’s character effortlessly manages to both swipe the explosives and position them in the shafts…without a company goon in sight. Directed by the hardest-working-man-on-the-Warner-Bros.-lot, Michael Curtiz, Abem Finkel and Carl Erickson are credited with Fury’s screenplay, which was based on a story (Jan Volkanik) by Judge Michael A. Musmanno and a play (Bohunk) by Harry R. Irving.

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