Short Stories: Michael Dunn

This is the first entry in my new series Short Stories, in which I profile Little People who have made their mark on classic film. Read more about this feature here.

“There’s prejudice everywhere. It does no good to give it back.”
– Lowenthal, on being asked if he objects to being seated with the dwarf Glocken, Ship of Fools (1965).

Michael Dunn in Ship of Fools (1965)

In Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools, a film made in the mid-1960s but set in the early 1930s, a Jewish salesman (portrayed by Heinz Rühmann) and a short-statured world traveler (Michael Dunn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance) are forced into an unlikely alliance when both are rejected from being seated at the captain’s table in the dining room of the luxury ocean liner on which they are traveling. Though both are German citizens, they are excluded from the table of “true Germans” due to their ethnic and physical differences. Upon their first encounter, Lowenthal asks Glocken if he is a Jew, asserting that Jews are usually only seated alone or with other Jews. Glocken insists that he is not Jewish, adding with a coy smile, “I’ve got my own minority group.”

Both are optimistic and amiable characters, taking the indignities regularly visited upon each of them as a result of their respective identities in stride. Even when bombarded on all sides by anti-semitic Nazi rhetoric from the ship’s other passengers, Lowenthal manages to maintain an indefatigably positive attitude. “There are a million Jews in Germany!” he declares. “What are they going to do, kill us all?” Meanwhile, when a couple of rambunctious children run by on deck and knock Glocken flat on his back, he gets up as quickly as possible, eager to recover his dignity though unable fully to conceal his embarrassment.

Significantly, both characters are presented positively in comparison with the film’s other figures, with Glocken acting as narrator and Greek chorus while Lowenthal remains the voice of humanity and hope in a world headed inexorably toward global conflict. The audience cannot help but sympathize with both characters, who stand out as the most likeable personae in the whole ensemble, despite — or perhaps because of — their rejection by the rest of the cast.

Heinz Rühmann

Off the set, however, the actor Heinz Rühmann was not Jewish. A beloved and popular character actor in Germany in the 1930s, Rühmann was offered acceptance into the Nazi film guild Reichsfilmkammer, membership in which was obligatory for all those who wished to work in the German film industry starting in 1933. The only condition? That he divorce his Jewish wife, Maria Bernheim, in order to retain his German citizenship. Rühmann consented in 1938, helping Bernheim escape to Sweden, where she survived the war in exile. Rühmann went on to star in over one hundred films over his seventy-year career. He would be voted Germany’s most beloved actor twelve times.

Michael Dunn could not so easily extricate himself from his on-screen persona. Born Gary Neil Miller in Shattuck, Oklahoma, on October 30, 1934, Dunn suffered from a congenital bone growth disorder known as spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, or SED. And he did, indeed, suffer. Besides causing his short stature (he attained an adult height of 3′ 10″), Dunn’s SED also gave him crippling osteoarthritis, poor vision, chronic shortness of breath, and permanently dislocated hips. “I’ve always lived with constant pain,” he once told Life magazine, “so that wasn’t a factor in whether I made a life for myself or not.” Despite his difficulties, Dunn did not consider himself disabled. The same Life interview also quotes him as saying, “There are remarkably few things I can’t do in one way or another. I don’t try to beat my limitations, just get around them so, in a way, they don’t ever exist.” Michael Dunn may have lived his life in constant pain in a world not designed to accommodate him, but he did not let this fact place restrictions on his goals, aspirations, or abilities.

Unfortunately, society did not view Michael Dunn in the same limitless way he saw himself. A true actor with a strong dedication to his craft, Dunn did not take well to being typecast in the unchallenging, one-dimensional roles that were typically the only option for performers of short stature during his time. In her 2002 article “What’s in a Diagnosis? A Medical Biography of Michael Dunn,” Elisabeth Thomas-Matej quotes a 1965 New York Post article as saying:

When Michael Dunn came here seven years ago to make his way in show business, he found that agents considered him a “tough sale.” The trouble wasn’t just that Dunn was a dwarf but that he was a stubborn dwarf who didn’t care to work in carnivals.

The same work, quoting his press kit biography, also insists that Dunn refused membership in the Little Men’s Protective Association, an advocacy organization for actors of short stature, “out of a determination to confront the big men’s world alone, on its own terms.” As an actor, Michael Dunn was resolute in his goal of being viewed as a performer of equal talent and abilities, in spite of his physical divergence from the “average.”

Phoebe Dorin and Michael Dunn

Despite his admirable refusal to demean his talent for money, Dunn unsurprisingly had a hard time escaping the prejudices of both the film industry and of society at large. “It bugs me green,” he told Life, “when people assume I am less than human because I’m less than human-size.” Late in his short life he grew bitter about his perceived inability to break the cycle of typecasting that had plagued him throughout his career. Co-star and close friend Phoebe Dorin says, “He couldn’t believe how other people saw him — as a freak and a dwarf.” He turned to prescription pills and heavy drinking to manage both his physical and emotional pain. On August 30, 1973, two months shy of his 39th birthday, Michael Dunn died in his sleep at a London hotel. His New York Times obituary, which begins by stating his height within the first sentence, erroneously categorizes his role in Ship of Fools — perhaps the most non-typecast, multi-dimensional, and human character Dunn ever played — as that of “an evil, dwarfed hunchback.”

Though in regards to intellect, ability and talent, Heinz Rühmann and Michael Dunn may have been equals, in the eyes of the industry in which they made their living, they were clearly not. As a white, heterosexual, average-statured male, Rühmann had the privilege as an actor to be able to put on and take off a multitude of identities at will. Every character played by Dunn, however, was a dwarf, just as he was in reality. This alone should not have limited his possibilities as a performer — Little People vary from one to the next just as much as all humans do. But the way in which Little People are perceived by the average-statured world, and in particular the way they were and still are portrayed by the film and television industries, severely restricted any chance a great talent like Michael Dunn may have had to showcase his unique and remarkable abilities.

This essay originally appeared in 2009 as the introduction to my senior thesis, Images of Little People in Film and Television, completed in pursuit of my Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology/Sociology from Mills College in Oakland, CA. To learn more about Michael Dunn, I highly recommend What’s in a Diagnosis? A Medical Biography of Michael Dunn by Elisabeth Thomas-Matej. Sounds dry, I know, but I promise it’s worth a read. :)

7 Comments

  1. Page

     /  February 9, 2011

    Caroline,

    I’m loving this series so far and can’t wait to see whats next. You’re such a talented writer with really thought provoking posts.

    Well done!

    • Thank you very kindly for the comment, Page! This essay is probably more well-crafted than the rest in the series will be, as it’s a section of my thesis that I worked for a year to perfect, but hopefully I’ll be somewhat successful with the future installments. :)

  2. Fascinating article about a gifted performer. He was marvelous in SHIP OF FOOLS, but was equally wonderful–in a very different way–as Dr. Loveless on THE WILD, WILD WEST.

  3. I can’t wait to read more of your short stories! Ship of fools was an incredible movie. parts of it were super boring, but I still loved it. I think that means something!

  4. I just accidentally came across this. I continue to be amazed at how Michael Dunn keeps “popping up” 39 years after his death. If you enjoyed reading this interesting short story about the remarkable actor, you will certainly enjoy reading his life story in his book, The Big Life of a Little Man: Michael Dunn Remembered. Thanks Caroline for honoring the memory of Michael Dunn and for sharing your well written essay.

  5. Everyone is invited to join the Facebook group “Michael Dunn – The Actor”. Go to the page and click on “join group” and you will be accepted as soon as possible. http://www.facebook.com/groups/237978062958455/

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