The Life of Emile Zola: A Rebuke Of Facism

The 1930s were a very tumultuous decade. First and foremost, the stock market crash of 1929 plunged the world economy into a dark, deep depression that lasted for most of the decade. Millions out of work and starving in America alone. The Dust Bowl swept across the nation’s bread basket. And, without getting too political here, it was also a time of great upheaval in government. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal gave the federal government power of massive entitlement programs designed to get people back to work.

But upheaval was not only an American problem. The depression hit Europe, too, and hard. Germany was the hardest hit. Due in large part to the very restrictive Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I, Germany was seeing rapid inflation, high unemployment, and an economy that was still in shambles.

Coming to fix that was Adolf Hitler, and his new Nazi party. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Nazism, and fascism spread across Deutschland like wildfire. His reign of terror lasted entirely too long, and his methods were horrible to folks in America, too. To combat the spread of Nazism, its propaganda and nationalism, anti-Nazi and anti-nationalist messages had to be distributed. This week’s movie, The Life of Emile Zola from 1937, is one such piece. The William Dieterle story is the first biopic to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and it follows a French author, Emile Zola, throughout his life. He’s a common man who makes it his charge to print muckraking pieces about France’s corrupt government during the Third Republic.

I admit, I didn’t have high expectations for this movie at first. The other movies I’d watched from the 1930s (It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take It With You) were charming, but lacked real depth. This one, however, did not, and it made me rethink the movies that came out of that decade.

Now, for the rest of the movie:

Plot

The Life of Emile Zola is the story of Emile Zola, a real-life French author from the turn of the 20th century. Paul Muni plays Zola in this William Dieterle flick from 1937. The plot follows Zola’s life (several years of it) and his struggles early to find work as a writer to late in life in which he’s fat, happy, and without drive. Throughout his life, he’s seen as a champion for the common man in France, often running afoul of the government and its censors. He touts the need for reforms around France and writes very critically of the government of the Third Republic.

At the same time, Army Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is convicted of a crime he never committed and is banished to South America, where he’s tortured in solitary confinement for three years. Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie (played by Gale Sondergaard), comes to Zola in his later years and asks him to take on her husband’s case and get him freed. He initially declines but then takes on the task. He’s tried for criminal libel against the state and is subsequently convicted.

The whole movie is a little less than two hours long. Yet, for the first hour, the movie is quite disjointed and I thought that I wouldn’t care for it much. It moves at a surprisingly fast clip, compressing 30 years into about 30 minutes. Zola ages rapidly and we hardly get to see his character develop.

Additionally, the introduction into Captain Dreyfus is muddy and awkward. I wasn’t quite sure who he was at first. To be honest, I kind of tuned the movie out.

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Then, the second hour hits. Now, this isn’t the best second-hour of a film that I’ve ever seen, yet it completely changed tact and saved the movie. Hell, it even redeemed it. Zola’s charge to the end, to take up the mantle and use his status as a public figure to save a man he’s never met is admirable. The trial of Emile Zola is infuriating with its heavy-handed bureaucracy, and its incredible speech by Zola, captivated me to the very end. Like all stories, all the points come together, but they do so in such a beautiful and fulfilling way here. I was blown away. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg wrote the movie version of The Life of Emile Zola, basing their screenplay on the Matthew Josephson book, Zola and His Time. The effort won them an Oscar for Best Adaptation.

For a majority of the movie, the writing is certainly nothing special. In fact, it fits perfectly with the time, full of quips and one-liners.

But, just as with the plot, the writing sticks out at the end of the film. I’m serious; it’s a completely different movie around the one hour mark. The dialogue, especially during Zola’s trial late in the movie, reaches new heights. It’s incredibly well thought out and compelling. The most striking part is during Zola’s monologue and his last shot for acquittal. He’s one man standing up to the government. And his monologue is incredible. 1.

Sound

The Life of Emile Zola scored two Oscar nominations for Best Scoring and Best Sound Recording. The score was composed by Max Steiner, who was, at the time, seemed to be the pre-eminent composer of movie scores.

Like most other scores of the day, the music served as a transition piece between scenes and was rarely played under dialogue. This is due to sound recording limitation of the time.

That’s not to say that it’s not good. The score for The Life of Emile Zola features sweeping strings (like most other Steiner scores) that add an element of “grandness” to the whole feel of the movie. It works great, but it’s not very prevalent. Still, though, the sound didn’t fall short of my expectations. 1.

Set Design

As with most other movies of the time, the set is some real movie magic. The film is set almost entirely in Paris. Yet, pretty much the whole thing was shot on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California. Yep. It was shot on a soundstage. While I knew this, it was hard not to believe that the story was actually in Paris. That’s the mark of a good set.

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As with other soundstage sets before the advent of CGI, the set was very square, almost like the set of a theatre. Boxy rooms and boxy streets populate the screen here. Yet, it’s believable and very well done.

One more quick note: the costumes were on point in The Life of Emile Zola. The costumes perfectly captured military and upper class life in Paris in the late 19th Century. I would have loved to have seen this movie in color. It would have been glorious. 1.

Cinematography

Tony Gaudio was the director of photography for The Life of Emile Zola and it was shot on 35mm black and white film.

A few months ago, I wrote about The Broadway Melody, the second ever Best Picture winner and the first “talkie” Best Picture winner too. As movies as a mass medium were still in their relative infancy at the time, the movies were modeled very much like the theatrical shows that audiences were used to seeing. This means very simple wide shots of an entire group of people and extended (and usually solo) reaction shots from one or a small group of actors. As the medium progressed into the late 1930s, the reaction shots stayed, and they’re very prevalent in The Life of Emile Zola.

Aside from that, the cinematography is unremarkable and drab. There are some slow camera movements throughout which help to demonstrate how well-blocked this movie is, another influence of the theatre. This cinemagraphic performance was unremarkable and really nothing to write home about. 1.

Acting

When it comes down to it, The Life of Emile Zola is about one man and one actor: Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni.

The only thing I could think of while watching Muni in this movie was the similarities between he and Gary Oldman’s role as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. But, for Olman’s winning of Best Actor, Muni was not even nominated and I have to disagree with the Academy’s decision here.

For this role, Muni had to take on a number of different physical forms and adapt to his character’s appearance. The story spans Zola’s life from 1864 to 1898. In that time, he’s a young man, middle-aged, before he’s finally in the twilight of life. Zola’s body takes many forms during the movie and this required not only flexibility in the costume department, but also versatility as an actor.

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But his performance didn’t just look good, it was good. Muni’s performance was the best one I’ve seen yet out of an early movie like this one. And, just like everything else having to do with this film, it got better as time wore on. It’s almost a parallel to Zola’s life: Muni became more refined and mature as the movie went on, and so did Zola’s. In an era in which actors often had to “over express” their movements on-screen, Muni was subtle and perfect in the role. 1.

Directing

William Dieterle directed The Life of Emile Zola and he was nominated for, but did not win, Best Director for it.

Often when I think about old Hollywood, or “the Golden Age” of Hollywood, it’s difficult for me to hold the movies in a high regard. There are some great films out there, don’t get me wrong, and some that should definitely be preserved and watched by all new generation of movie-goers. Yet, I still struggle with many of them; often films from the early through the mid-20th century are usually very superficial, white-washed, and too general. Often the men are manly men with so much machismo that it makes baseball’s steroid era look like child’s play, while the women are very simple, mostly relying on men to help them out. I’m not delusional, though; this is still and huge problem in Hollywood today. Movies, for as long as they’ve existed, are windows into how storytellers and producers, and even bean counters, feel that American life and society should be portrayed. The images in them are to be projected on to those watching.

But, every now and then, there comes a movie that bucks that trend, that doesn’t stand by the same classic drivel that Hollywood pumps out, and makes you think. These are the movies like Slumdog Millionaire, The Silence of the Lambs, The Deer Hunter, and Dances with Wolves. The Life of Emile Zola bucks this same trend. Yes, the movie does have a happy ending, but the message that it sends (the anti-Nazi, anti-nationalism sort) only gets sent through a tough, gritty film about one man’s struggles against a corrupt government.

This, of course, spoke volumes in 1937: the Nazis were on the rise in Europe and this movie was the counterpoint to this. But, I see that it spoke volumes about what nationalism can do to a country and her government. I’m not here to criticize anything; we get enough of that in our daily lives. But I’m here to put the film in its historical context, and I think it’s message stands out just as much today as it did in 1937. And that’s the mark of a great film. I watched The Life of Emile Zola 81 years after it was released to the public, and yet it spoke to me. And, I found that to be very powerful. 1.

Bonus Points

I’ll give a bonus point to Joseph Schildkraut who played Alfred Dreyfus. He won Best Supporting Actor for his role and I feel like he needs some love.

Final score: 8/10

Oscar Facts

The Life of Emile Zola won the 10th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 10, 1938 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Due to flooding, the ceremony was pushed back a week from March 3. It beat out The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, and A Star Is Born for Best Picture. The award was accepted by Henry Blanke on behalf of Warner Brothers. The Life of Emile Zola was the first film ever nominated for 10 or more awards: Best Picture, Director, Best Supporting Actor, Original Story, Adaptation (how a movie is nominated for Best Original Story and Best Adaptation is beyond me), Scoring, Sound Recording, Art Direction, and Assistant Director, and it led all movies that year. The movie won three awards (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adaptation), also the most out of any other film.

Other winners that night included Leo McCarey winning Best Director for The Awful Truth, Spencer Tracy winning Best Actor for Captains Courageous, Luise Rainer winning Best Actress for The Good Earth, and Alice Brady winning Best Supporting Actress for Old Chicago. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the world’s first feature length Technicolor animation film and it received only a nomination for Best Scoring. The next year, after realizing that the movie revolutionized the way movies are presented, the Academy made up for their mistake and presented Walt Disney with a special Oscar. The statuette had seven smaller statuettes affixed to it. Additionally, A Star Is Born was the first color film nominated for Best Picture. The ceremony was hosted by Bob Burns.

Next Week

My next undertaking are two Clint Eastwood movies: Unforgiven from 1992, and Million Dollar Baby from 2004. After that, it’s Gone with the Wind, How Green Was My Valley, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The French Connection, and Braveheart.

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