Controversy surrounding Black Fury kept Warner Bros. from promoting its brilliant star for a best actor Oscar nomination; but Paul Muni was unofficially nominated anyhow, by Academy voters, who gave Muni as a write-in candidate the second highest total of votes.* ** *** He is indeed immense—initially boisterous, ultimately heartrending and fiercely righteous—as coal miner Joe Radek, an East European immigrant, who stupidly manages to split his union by ceding to a planted company agent’s manipulation of him when he is drunk and reckless after being jilted by Anna Novak, who has run off instead with one of the coal company’s goon-cops. Miners strike; the company president replaces them with scabs. Joe is treated as a pariah by his former comrades, including Mike Shemanski, who is beaten to death by another company cop (this is based on an actual 1929 incident), spurring Joe to take decisive action as miners struggle to hold onto their strike.
This is a schizophrenic film. The company president and the company cop with whom Anna runs away are both portrayed as gracious and decent; but the miners are also treated most sympathetically. John Qualen beautifully enacts the role of Mike—a reminder of the plethora of superlative performances Qualen gave over the years, including as Earl Williams in Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday and Muley in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (both 1940). Moreover, J. Carrol Naish plays Croner, the company plant, as odious—surely somewhat a reflection of the coal company’s ethos.
The union’s national vice president is bizarre—for me, sanctimonious, tin-eared, indeterminate: a compromised and compromising figure, reflecting, perhaps embodying, the film’s cross-purposes.
Tom Zaniello, in Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds, and Riffraff (2003), addresses the National Coal Association’s role in pressuring for this conflicted result.
* Victor McLaglen richly deserved the Oscar he won as Gypo Nolan in John Ford’s The Informer—a role that is strikingly similar to Muni’s in several ways.
** The year before, Bette Davis had received the second highest total of Academy votes for best actress as a write-in candidate. The occasion was her star-making role as Mildred Rogers in John Cromwell’s Of Human Bondage. Her studio, again Warners, refused to promote her for a nomination because Davis made the film on loan-out to RKO. However, it is neither Davis’s nor Muni’s second-place finish that accounts for the Academy’s decision to prohibit write-in votes. As a write-in candidate, Hal Mohr actually won the Oscar for best cinematography of 1935, for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet again the studio involved was Warners.
*** Muni won the best actor Oscar the following year for his far more restrained and meticulously crafted, but nowhere near as affecting, performance as Louis Pasteur (The Story of Louis Pasteur, William Dieterle, 1936). Similarly, Davis had won as best actress the year following Of Human Bondage, for her far less interesting role back home at Warners as a washed-up, dipsomaniacal actress in Dangerous (Alfred E. Green, 1935).