Juarez (1939): Paul Muni Biopic

In this Warner production, part of a cycle of “Great Men,” Paul Muni plays Juarez, the president of Mexico, who leads his people, fighting for independence after Napoleon (Claude Rains) makes Maximilian (Brian Aherne) emperor of Mexico.

The film is directed by William Dieterle, from a screenplay credited to John Huston (before he became a director), Wolfgang Reinhardt, and Aeneas MacKenzie, based on the novel The Phantom Crown by Bertita Harding and the play Juarez and Maximilian by Franz Werfel.

The all-star cast also includes Bette Davis as the Empress Carlota, John Garfield as Porifirio Diaz, Gale Sondergaard as the Empress Eugenie.

In 1863, Napoléon, fearful he will lose Mexico to its newly-elected president Benito Juárez, circumvents the Monroe Doctrine by instituting sovereign rule and controlling an election that places Maximilian von Habsburg on the Mexican throne.

Upon his arrival in the country with his wife Carlota, Maxmilian realizes he is expected to establish French supremacy by confiscating land Juárez had returned to the people and penalizing the rebels under his command. Maximilian decides to abdicate his throne but is deterred from doing so by Carlotta.

Maximillian offers Juárez the position of prime minister, and his refusal creates a rift between the two. When the American Civil War ends, the U.S. sends troops and weaponry in support of Juárez’s army, but their efforts are thwarted by vice-president Alejandro Uradi. However, Napoleon removes all French troops from Mexico, leaving Maximilian without an army.

Carlota returns to Paris to appeal to Napoleon, but she suffers a mental breakdown. Juárez and his rebels capture Maxmilian and his men and, though he could be free, he insists on remaining with his supporters. Tried and found guilty, they are sentenced to death by firing squad.

John Garfield, then a rising star, was cast as Porfirio Diaz at the request of Paul Muni, who was familiar with his stage work in New York. By the time shooting began, he had received critical acclaim and his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Michael Curtiz’s Four Daughters. Warner questioned his playing a minor role in Juarez, but he actor insisted on making it. The reviews for the work of Garfield, who still had a heavy accent, were bad, and the discouraged actor never played in another period or costume drama.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actor: Brian Aherne
Cinematography (b/w): Tony Gaudio

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

Gone with the Wind, which swept most of the Oscars, vied for the top award with nine other films: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.

The winner of the Supporting Actor Oscar was Thomas Mitchell for the Western “Stagecoach” (he also played that year Scarlett O'Hara's father in “Gone with the Wind”).

Gregg Toland deservedly won the b/w Cinematography Oscar for “Wuthering Heights.”