Long before Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” (2006) won the best picture Oscar, Academy voters had a soft spot for bad fellas. From the first Academy Awards, voters have taken crime tales and gangster yarns seriously. In 1929, “The Racket” was “best picture, production” nommed, and Ben Hecht won the screenplay award for “Underworld.” In 1931, the classic James Cagney-starrer “The Public Enemy,” competed in the original screenplay category, while Edward G. Robinson’s iconic “Little Caesar” competed for the adapted screenplay award.
In 1935, the gangster film not only won its second Oscar (for original screenplay for the Clark Gable hit, “Manhattan Melodrama”), but that movie became part of American crime lore when John Dillinger met his fate at the hands of the G-men’s Tommy guns when he made the mistake of escorting a certain lady in red to a screening of the picture in Chicago.
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As evidence of the genre’s respectability back in that era, perhaps no “serious” actor from stage was more sought for movie roles in the early sound era than the great Paul Muni. A star of Yiddish Theater in New York and then Broadway, here’s how Variety described his first major role on the New York stage in 1926:
“Muni, as the aged father (he was 30 at the time!), registers with a memorable and inspired performance. From Yiddish legit, as are most of the rest of the cast.
There’s no question but that those Yiddish legits know how to troup. Similar histrionics from a Lambs’ clubber would place (him) among the theatrical Immortals.”
In 1932, the same year that Muni appeared in Howard Hawks’ massively
influential “Scarface,” Muni was nominated for the lead actor Oscar for “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.” By 1935 he had scored Hollywood’s highest honor for his role in “The Life of Louis Pasteur” and went on to score four more lead actor Oscar noms before his passing in 1967.
For Muni, crime obviously did pay, and as evidenced by the kudos and views for Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” it still plays.