Friday, August 23, 2013

The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture 1937)

This film opens with the credits and then, immediately preceding any of the action, we get the following message:
This production has its basis in history. 
The historical basis, however, has been fictionalized for the purposes of this picture and the names of many characters, many characters themselves, the story, incidents and institutions, are fiction, with the exception of known historical characters whose actual names are herein used, no identification with actual persons, living or dad, is intended or should be inferred. 

Now I absolutely did not know what to do with this comment. I have to say that any biographical film that opens with a preamble like this has got to go a LONG way to impress me! I shrugged, figured this was the 1937 version of "Based on a True Story," and kept watching.

I guess I should admit that I had no idea who Emile Zola was before I sat down to watch this film. So I had no idea what was true and was false as I was watching it. While I suppose that's true of all "biographical" films, it still struck me as odd. So do YOU know who Emile Zola was? Evidently he is a famous French writer (1840-1902), but when I researched him the only thing I knew him from was his  letter to the French President called, 'J'accuse!" (I accuse (you)). Coincidentally, the majority of this film is about that very letter. 
Zola, his unnamed artist friend, and his prostitute friend argue with the police
That ended up being another strike against this film: it's not actually about the life of Zola! The first half-hour or so is Zola making a name for himself as a writer and political activist; then suddenly he is famous (we know this from one of those famous montage scenes of  various books being published, representing the passage of time.) It seems very jarring that he is in poverty for the first ten minutes, then writes a novel (?) about a prostitute he names Nana, and suddenly he is a French celebrity. Now we start to get the to the intrigue of the French Army and the Dreyfus Affiair. It takes over from this point, interweaving in with Zola's success until the two threads meet up. Turns out the majority of the film is a court-room drama about political corruption and antisemitism. Although the film is called, "The Life of Emile Zola," it should have been called "The Dreyfus Affair" or "The Death of Zola." That's like taking another military court-room drama like "A Few Good Men" and re-naming it "The Life of Lt Col Nathan Jessup." It's just false advertising.

Now, as a court-room drama, the film is actually very good. There is a spy in the French Army, providing secrets to the Germans. Once that fact is known, the generals in the Army place blame on Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an officer who happens to be Jewish. There is absolutely no case against him, but they court-martial him anyway. They discharge him, publicly humiliate him, and imprison him on Devil's Island. Zola, who has made a name for himself by championing the underclass and the underdog, is convinced by Dreyfus' wife to take on the case. He writes an open letter to the French President accusing him and the Army of gross negligence and of the bogus guilty verdict, ignoring the actual guilty party. This is the letter that starts out, "I accuse..!" The Army sues Zola for libel, which is exactly what Zola hoped would happen. He and his lawyers hope to bring out the facts about Dreyfus once and for all. However, the presiding judge does not let any mention of the Dreyfus case or its cover-up be mentioned in court. Obviously, Zola is found guilty. He escapes to England before he can be imprisoned. There he continues to write Op-Ed letters about the case until a new French President and Chief of Staff finally agree to re-open the case. They end up pardoning Dreyfus. However, the night before Dreyfus' return and re-induction into the Army, Zola dies of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Or maybe most of this is fictitious. Who can tell? 

So does that sound like a Best Picture to you?

Don't get me wrong; this is a good movie. It just is not what I thought it would be, namely a biography of a French writer.  The biographical details in the first third are not fleshed out to a level I would have expected, so when we later get excessive details about Dreyfus' life on Devil's Island, it seems somehow unbalanced. For example, at the beginning of the film Emile is living in poverty with an artist. I didn't catch his name if it was given. He doesn't seem important. Later he shows up and chastises Emile for becoming too fat and too rich. I didn't catch his name during this scene, either. Yet when Dreyfus is imprisoned, we are shown the specific books that he is allowed to read. It's an odd detail to share when we don't learn the name of Zola's best friend, don't you think?  Was the artist one of the things the writers had to be circumspect about? 
By far the best part of the film is the stellar cast. By far the best of the bunch is Joseph Schildkraut as Dreyfus. He won the second ever Best Supporting Actor award for this role. Schildkraut embodies pride and honor as Dreyfus, a character we are shown to be innocent. So he has our sympathy from the beginning and never loses it. I only wish he had been given even more screen time. Joseph Schildkraut later appeared in The Diary of Anne Frank as her father, and was nominated for that performance as well.

Dreyfus' wife is played by Gale Sondergaard, who won the very first Best Supporting Actress the year before (Anthony Adverse). I had heard of her name but had never seen her in anything before this. Mostly I knew her as the actress who was given and then turned down the role of the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of OZ. She was very good here as the pillar of faith, first in her husband's innocence and then in Zola's ability to save him.

And of course, there is Paul Muni in the title role. He was coming off of his Best Actor award from the previous year (The Story of Louis Pasteur). He was nominated for this, too, but lost to Spencer Tracy. He is fine here, but his French accent makes him hard to understand sometimes. And he has a thankless role here: how do you represent indignation to corruption? Do you have a hissy fit or do you arch an eye-brow or look past the camera pensively? Yes, yes, and yes. His role is the center of the action, but his acting is not.  He is too much the reactionary, where Schildkraut and Sondergaard are the protagonists.

The last comment I want to make is that the DVD cover, as shown above, confuses me. It shows Muni clean-shaven and dapper. However, throughout the film Zola is anything but dapper. Muni is made up with a wig and whiskers for the entire time. It's another bit of oddness for a very odd Best Picture.
the real Emile Zola
the real Paul Muni
The Life of Emile Zola
*Academy Award Best Picture 1937*
Produced by Henry Blanke
Directed by Wiliiam Dieterle
Screenplay by Heinz Herald,
Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine
based on the book Zola & His Time by Matthew Josephson

"The Screen's Most Memorable Accomplishment".....hmmm. Hyperbole, anybody?

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
The Awful Truth
Captains Courageous
Dead End
The Good Earth
In Old Chicago
Lost Horizon
100 Men And A Girl
Stage Door
A Star Is Born
This is another year where I am not very familiar with the other nominees. I have seen  The Awful Truth. It's a great comedy drama about marriage starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. She was nominated; he was not. Neither won, although the director, Lew McCarey, *did* win. The Good Earth is the film version of Pearl Buck's story about Chinese farmers starring...western actors. In fact, Luise Rainer won her second Best Actress award for her role of the lead Chinese woman. I refuse to see this on principle. Lost Horizon I have heard of but never seen. A Star Is Born (original version) likewise, although I have seen the Julie Garland-James Mason version. And 100 Men And A Girl, although it sounds mildly dirty, is about an amateur orchestra and their lead singer. It is incredibly popular in Japan for some reason, but I still have managed to not see it. The others I know absolutely nothing about, unfortunately.

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