THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937)

  • Director: William Dieterle
  • Writers: Screenplay by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine, Story by Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg, based on the non-fiction book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
  • Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Donald Crisp, Henry O’Neill, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern, Ralph Morgan, Robert Barrat, Vladimir Sokoloff, Harry Davenport, and Robert Warwick
  • Accolades: 3 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor – Joseph Schildkraut, Best Screenplay), 7 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – William Dieterle, Best Actor – Paul Muni, Best Story, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Assistant Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I could write this whole article ripping on The Life of Emile Zola as a movie, but honestly about an hour in I found myself way more into it than I had been expecting. The long stretch where it turns into a crazy courtroom drama, where the rules seem to apply to the defense but not the prosecution, still works well today, I’d say. In some ways, this is a prestige studio biopic of the exact kind that feels like it’s been winning Oscars forever, and basically has been. Yet, from a structural perspective, it is a very weird movie, with what I would call a very silly lead performance, that strangely ends up dancing around what feels like it should be the movie’s actual subject.

In one episode of M*A*S*H, a nostalgic Hawkeye discusses his childhood during the Great Depression: “You knew where you stood in those days. Franklin Roosevelt was always President, Joe Louis was always the champ, and Paul Muni played everybody.” Paul Muni was born into a Jewish family in Lemberg, part of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the city of Lviv in far western Ukraine, where he spoke Yiddish as his first language. He emigrated with his family to Chicago at the age of eight and came up through the Yiddish theater there. He did his own makeup, often playing characters of entirely different ages than his own (one of his first roles on stage was playing an 80-year-old man as a 12-year-old). Though eccentric (he reportedly became irate if anyone around him wore the color red) he was also one of the most respected actors of his time. He was particularly well known for playing real people, often studying their facial expressions and body language at length before playing them.

In this movie, Muni plays the French “naturalist” writer Émile Zola, from his youth to old age. Despite the title, however, the movie gives short shrift to the vast majority of Zola’s life in order to concentrate for most of its running time specifically on its most famous incident, the Dreyfus Affair. It feels in many ways like a movie about the Affair, sort of snuck into Hollywood through the back door of being a biography of a famous writer. And it might have been. The Dreyfus Affair is considered a landmark historical example of anti-semitism, but Warner Bros. chair Jack L. Warner, Jewish himself, expressly forbade the movie from discussing anti-semitism, or even from referring to “Jews” at all. The reasoning being that Warner, in 1937, didn’t want to upset the Nazis, as Germany was one of his studio’s larger markets and they didn’t want to get banned. Which begs the question, why was this movie made at all?

A summary here may be necessary, for our readership in America and likely in many other countries, on the Dreyfus Affair, probably the most passionately debated subject in its period of French history. I am not an expert on the subject, nor do I feel like I am after watching this movie, but I’ll give it a shot. France had lost a war to Germany a couple decades earlier, and still considered the Germans the enemy. In 1894, French army intelligence discovered that someone was passing notes detailing French army secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The Army very quickly settled on Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer to recently receive a security clearance, as the likely culprit, despite a total lack of actual evidence. Dreyfus was quickly convicted by a military tribunal as anti-semitic fervor swept France, and was sent to the infamous Devil’s Island prison off French Guiana.

Meanwhile, back in France, the Army figured out that the actual spy was someone named Esterhazy, but through some combo of antisemitism and belief it would damage the Army to admit it was wrong, Esterhazy was quickly acquitted, and “smoking gun” evidence against Dreyfus was forged. Zola, one of the best-selling authors in the country, then wrote a famous op-ed that ran in papers with a big front page headline “J’accuse!” or, as this movie hilariously feels to need to translate, “I accuse.” Zola was put on trial himself for libel, which was actually the point, because he wanted to re-litigate the Dreyfus and Esterhazy cases at his own trial. Zola would be convicted (he fled to England to avoid jail time) but turned public opinion enough that things eventually came out, the officer who had forged the “smoking gun” note admitted it and then killed himself, and Dreyfus was released and had his conviction reversed. The rampant anti-semitism his case exposed is actually indirectly credited with starting the formal Zionist movement that around 50 years later would result in the formation of the state of Israel, along with lots of other effects.

So it’s all a very fascinating and complicated period of history, which this movie deals with by being very complicated without being particularly interested in being fascinating. There are a lot of real life French historical figures. Cezanne, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, randomly shows up for like two scenes. Anatole France, played by Morris Carnovsky, is in like two others. But unless you already knew who Anatole France was, this movie would give you no actual clues. It doesn’t help that all of the military guys have the same ridiculous-but-accurate skinny 1890s mustaches. So those courtroom scenes (with the prolific vet Donald Crisp playing the heck out the part of Zola’s heroic lawyer) are gripping not because of specifics but because of the general feel of them.

I actually really like Paul Muni, don’t get me wrong. He’s great in movies like Scarface or I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang. But this part indulges his worst tendencies, and he spends the Dreyfus parts wearing a ridiculous fake-looking beard and doing a lot of acting that plays very much like a Saturday Night Live cast member dressing up as an old man for a sketch. Gloria Holden (perhaps best known today for playing the title role in Dracula’s Daughter) gets second billing for her part as Mrs. Zola, but gets pretty much nothing to do. Austrian actor Joseph Schildkraut gets a lot more to do as Dreyfus and actually won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, though he does spend a good portion of the movie just yelling, “I am innocent!” over and over. But he’s good at it, I’ll give him that.

On a very basic level, The Life of Emile Zola is very old-fashioned, what Hollywood used to think was prestigious. I was expecting that. What I wasn’t expecting was how the screenplay would just structurally be super weird in such a way that there aren’t really any, you know, character arcs or anything. And yet, again, I didn’t hate it? I’m just not sure how to write about in a way that would communicate any reason to like it, even though I’m pretty sure that reason exists.

Anyway, I said yesterday that I think that some “Forgotten” Best Picture winners just happen to be in not particularly memorable years, and, outside of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was by far the year’s biggest money-maker, 1937 probably qualifies. Consider how many great movies came out in 1939, like I wrote about the other day, while I was looking through the movies anyone would have heard of from 1937 and had trouble finding any aside from Snow White, the original version of A Star Is Born, and maybe Captains Courageous. Anyway, this is the first movie we’ve covered so far from that year so far, which means that there are only four total years left between 2000 and 1920 that we haven’t covered a movie from. The remaining years are 1921, 1943, 1949, and, randomly, 1983, if you were curious.

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