THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (Dir: William Dieterle) (Scr: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald,Geza Herczeg)
In 1937, for the second year in a row, the Academy gave the best picture award to a biographic film; they both were essentially hagiographies, with minor characters constantly reminding the leads of their greatness, and they both end with eulogies that state that greatness one last time. Still, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA is a much more serious film than the frothy THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, because it is about corruption, and it has several long speeches railing against injustice. In that regard it resembles 1935's best picture winner MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY in that both films criticize unfair military systems of the past; unfortunately, as with MUTINY, the THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA gives us a simplistic story of good vs. evil. Awarding these films was a no brainer for the Academy since their stands against wrongdoing are only about military systems that are European and that essentially ended decades before the films were made. They were hardly controversial. Films that portrayed injustice in a modern setting, like say, Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES(1936), were generally avoided by the Academy then (and perhaps still are!).
Emile Zola (1840-1902) was a famous French author, journalist and playwright who often courted controversy in his writings, especially in his attacks on the French military of the time. He is most famous for his defense of an army captain wrongly accused of treason, and this is what the film focuses on. (In the film, an opening title card explains that this film is based on fact, but that it is not completely historically accurate; something that could be said about every historical film ever made).
The movie begins in Paris in 1862, with the struggling young writer Zola (Paul Muni) living in a dingy Parisian apartment with the soon to be famous painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). The first half hour of the film briskly shows the rise of Zola and ends with him old and successful; most of his literary works are barely mentioned, and his wife hardly shows up all. When Cezanne accuses him of complacency and leaves his home for good, it feels like an ending, even though there is a good hour and a half of film to go!
The film then switches to the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus(Joseph Schildkraut), who is accused of being a traitor by his superior officers; he is found guilty and sentenced to Devil's Island. When evidence is discovered proving his innocence, the officers cover it up to avoid disgrace. Dreyfus' wife (Gale Sondergaard), convinced that he is not guilty, brings his case to the attention of Zola, who initially resists her, but then becomes involved. Zola boldly attacks the officers in a newspaper editorial with the famous headline "I Accuse!" (or, in French: "J'Accuse!"), knowing full well that he will be sued for libel, which could end with he himself going to jail. The trial divides the country and although he fails to win his case and is forced to flee to London, justice is eventually served, and both Zola and Dreyfus are exonerated.
Paul Muni, in slightly ridiculous old age makeup, as Zola
The then forty two year old Muni had the disadvantage of playing Zola as an old man through most of the film, and he looks a little uncomfortable in padding to make him look heavier and old age makeup. Still, he gives a mostly credible performance, giving Zola some eccentric touches and doing his best to sell the long, heavy handed speeches that he delivers. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast: Schildkraut as Dreyfus won a best supporting actor award for his role, but I find him too broad and melodramatic; he doesn't just proclaim his innocence, he yells it, repeatedly. Even worse is Sondergaard as his wife, with her pained, suffering expressions pushing the film further into soap opera territory. The corrupt officials, led by Harry Davenport's chief of staff, are all thoroughly unlikable villains who practically ooze evil in a most predictable manner.
I find the direction of William Dieterle here to be flat, with few striking images or interesting camerawork; the era of Paris in the late eighteen hundreds is barely evoked. The big court room scene hits all the obvious notes, with various characters stentorially orating about the case, while onlookers yell and catcall and the inevitably dictatorial judge demands silence. Zola's big speech before the court is shot in one take, which makes it seem to last forever. Even Max Steiner's score for the film feels obvious and it often painfully underlines emotions that the characters are already stating. And, while it may be historically accurate for Zola to flee to England until Dreyfus is eventually freed by the work of others, it makes the ending anti climatic, with Zola and Dreyfus never even meeting each other. Worst of all is what this film leaves out: Dreyfus was Jewish, and the accusations made against him were clearly anti Semitic in nature, a fact that the film never mentions. In fact, a new book by Ben Urwand called THE COLLABORATION:HOLLYWOOD'S PACT WITH HITLER claims that studio heard Jack Warner himself had the word jew removed from the film, out of fear of losing the German market for this and other films. To me this makes this dull and stuffy film even less praise worthy.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
As I'm sure you can tell from my comments, I find this film mostly ponderous and full of self righteous speeches that last too long. For me, Gregory La Cava's STAGE DOOR, with its wonderful female cast, would have been a much better choice. I also greatly enjoy Leo McCarey's THE AWFUL TRUTH, William Wellman's original version of A STAR IS BORN, Frank Capra's LOST HORIZON, and William Wyler's DEAD END.