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The Life Of Emile Zola (1937) Wonder

The Life Of Emile Zola (1937) Wonder
Balthasar, Aug 9, 2018
    • Balthasar
      The Life of Emile Zola was either the first or second biographical film (or 'biopic') to win the Oscar for best picture. Some authorities bestow that honor on The Great Ziegfeld, which had won the previous year, others apparently consider Ziegfeld's biographical account an overly-fictionalized and thinly veiled excuse to make a film with elaborate musical numbers (an argument that has some merit), and award the title of "first" to Zola.

      In any case, The Life of Emile Zola was, remarkably, the very first film to net a Best Picture Oscar for the Warner Bros. studio. The film was very highly regarded, by both critics and the Academy, and picked up a record (at the time) ten nominations, winning three: the others were for Best Screenplay, and for Best Supporting Actor, which went to Joseph Schildkraut, who played Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the film. It is widely believed that Paul Muni would have won the Best Actor Oscar as well, had he not won that award the year before for his portrayal of Louis Pasteur. It is undeniable, however, that the success of the movie depended entirely on Muni's portrayal of Zola, a complex and intellectual character, not exactly the sort that usually makes cinematic history. But as the film hits the highlights of Zola's life - his friendship with artist Paul Cézanne, his discovery of Nana, the prostitute who would inspire his first bestseller, his subsequent wealth, and finally his fateful decision to go toe-to-toe with the French Republic in defense of a wrongly convicted man - Muni builds a compelling portrait of a hero who rediscovers his passion for justice by defending the freedom of another man (and convincingly ages 50 years in under two hours).

      Although the film was widely praised and extremely well reviewed in its day, its reputation has suffered, as many other films of that era have, when examined through a modern lens. Critics have noted for instance, that although Dreyfus was unjustly accused in large part because he was Jewish, the word 'jew' is never uttered, and was supposedly ordered excised from the script by studio bosses. Though that might be true, audiences of the late 1930's were more likely to notice the ugly similarities between the unjust miltary state of Napoleon III depicted in the film, and the fascist regimes that were taking control of Germany, Italy and Spain at the time. A common thread among them, for instance, is the tendency of a dictatorship to suppress the criticism, which is also an issue that confronts Zola:

      La Rue: We've been watching your writings, young man. You're a troublemaker! These articles of yours, attacking our leading men of letters, the arts! Criticizing the civic authorities!

      Émile Zola: Perhaps you know of something better for me to criticize?

      Zola also addresses (because it's a plot point) the tendency of military regimes to use the chain of command to delegate their misdeeds to underlings:

      Émile Zola: Why didn't Picquart say anything?

      Lucie Dreyfus: Colonel Picquart is a good officer. He kept silent at the request of his superiors.

      Émile Zola: You mean they KNEW and they ordered him to suppress the truth? Why, that's monstrous!

      Sadly, the state-sponsored injustices that Zola rages against would pale, in the years following the release of this film, when compared to the monstrous reality that was already underway in Europe while it was being made. As a polemic, this film wasn't too subtle, it was just too late.

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