The Best Picture Project — The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola poster.jpg

Directed by William Dieterle

Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine; Story and Screenplay by Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg; based upon the book by Matthew Josephson

Starring Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard and Joseph Schildkraut

The Life of Emile Zola is really two movies in one.

The first is a 25 minute seminar of a film, focusing on the professional life of writer Emile Zola.  It begins with him dirt poor in Paris, proceeds through a whirlwind medley of his greatest hits – books are published, a wife is married, fame is gotten – then settles with him into state of retirement and living off his wealth.

The second also plays as a bit of a seminar, but given 80 minutes to tell a fairly complicated story, with at least ten of those minutes reserved for an Oscar-bait oration, what other way should it be?  This time the subject is Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.  For those wanting an in-depth take on what the Dreyfus Affair was, they can go here and read the sure-to-be true Wikipedia take on it.  For those happy to avoid all that, you only need know the Dreyfus Affair involves a man wrongly convicted of treason by the military and that when the truth emerges about the wrongness of the conviction, the military covers it up to save their own skin.

Zola, the champion of the un-championed, eventually takes up the cause – did I mention Zola was a contemporary of Paul Cezanne, whose sole purpose in the film is to drop in from time-to-time to serve up some ‘on the nose’ conscience bombs, moments before Zola he needs them? – and orates Dreyfus to freedom.

Then, just before he can celebrate in Dreyfus’ release, he drops dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, brought on by a faulty stovepipe.

1937LostHorizonPoster.jpgIt Won, But Is It Best?

Many, many, many times throughout this series I’ve taken aim at Best Picture Winners and shamed them for being lesser.  Usually this is because I benefit from hind sight that gives me a perspective on things the Academy didn’t have, so I can avoid making the howlingly-bad mistakes.  For instance, I know that some winners are culturally irrelevant seventy years on and their awards are a joke, while the films it defeated stand the test of time – I’m looking at you How Green Was My Valley.

As many times as I’ve taken aim at the films, this might be the one time I respond with a shrug.  Yes, I don’t think Emile Zola is really a Best Picture caliber film – at least not if we assume the award should actually go to the Best Film and not dreck like The Greatest Show On Earth.  But on the other hand, I can’t really make too strong a case for any other to take its place.  An argument could be made for Snow White and The Seven Dwarves or The Awful Truth, and if it was, I couldn’t really argue too hard.  After all, Snow White basically cemented Disney’s legacy – yes, I know it’s more complicated than that – and The Awful Truth is a very good screwball comedy.  Still, neither of them really grab me.

If I was making a case for any other film that year I’d step up for Lost Horizon.  To me the movie is tender, well-made and resonates.  But, though I personally prefer it I’ve only ever seen it in that awful ‘restored’ version, which fills in the missing bits of the film with still photos and the remains of a dialog track playing over it.  As such, in my head it always plays more as a curiosity than a fully-formed work of art.  Is it unfairly pejorative of me to see it this way?  Sure, but since this is my blog and my Best Picture Project, we’ll do things my way.

So, if I had to sit down and watch one of these movies or the other, the one I’d watch is Lost Horizon.  And If I had to pick a Best Picture winner it would also be Lost Horizon But am I offended The Life of Emile Zola won?  Not really.  Sure, if it weren’t saddled with the title “Best Picture Winner” it would almost-certainly be nothing more than an obscure, inessential film and you’d not be the lesser for having missed it.  But given the other choices out there for 1937, it’s not the worst of them.

In a nutshell, a grudging shrug of the shoulders.

(As an aside, maybe that should be a rating – we’ve thumbs-up, thumbs-down or shrug of the shoulders.)

Three men standing shoulder to shoulder. In the background, a painted eagle.That Being Said

It might get a shrug of the shoulders, but there are two things of note to discuss about Emile Zola the film, and neither of them necessarily have to do with the film itself.

At the beginning of the movie, before anything else happens, a disclaimer plays on screen informing us that, while the film is based on fact, events and the like were streamlined/altered for movie purposes.  In other words, the story was changed to make it more cinematic.

Now, I’m not brain-dead so I’d always taken it as faith that ‘true stories’ and biopics weren’t really necessarily truthful, especially on film.  After all, the point of the movie is to make a good movie, not a filmed document of the absolute fact.  To pull a quote from Werner Herzog – and I’m bastardizing it here – the point is to make an ecstatic truth, not a literal truth.  So when I go into Foxcatcher or Selma or whatever, as long as they speak to some sort of truth I’m not expecting absolute fidelity to the facts.

(As an aside, I’m not weighing into the American Sniper business here, so save your breath.)

But that a film nearly 80 years old acknowledges upfront that it may not play perfectly with the facts was something refreshing and could serve as a lesson to movies today.  You want to avoid controversy?  Just tell people from the start that events were changed for movie purposes.  Or better yet, don’t call it a true-story, call it a non-fiction story, along the same lines as In Cold Blood is a non-fiction novel.

(Though, to be fair, controversy sells, so don’t expect anything to change.)

Joseph Schildkraut's actual OscarWhile I found the honesty of the movies adherence, or non-adherence, to the details refreshing, I was absolutely baffled that Joseph Schildkraut won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dreyfus.  After all, it has to be the single worst Oscar ever given to a film that also won Best Picture.  Worse than Charlton Heston for Ben-Hur, worse than the screenwriters of Around the World in 80 Days, worse than…worse than everybody.

The problem is not that it’s a terrible performance – performances win all the time that seemed great at the time but appear awful or laughable in hindsight.  See the aforementioned Charlton Heston, or Ray Milland for The Lost Weekend.   The problem is that it’s a non-performance.   And I don’t mean non-performance in the sense that it’s so method or naturalistic it looks more lived-in than performed.  No, I mean it’s a non-performance in the sense that there is no performance going on.  In the role of Dreyfus, Schildkraut does so little of anything he could have easily been replaced by a stack of talking bricks.  And if he had been replaced by the bricks, I have no doubt almost certainly would have an Oscar because Schildkraut didn’t win for his performance, he won for the righteousness of the historical being.

On the one hand, I know the Oscars and most other awards are all bullshit – acting and filmmaking is an art form, and how can any piece of art really be ‘Best’?  But on the other, that the value of art is so often mixed up with righteousness or politics is offensive and completely devalues the idea of what art is.

maxresdefaultTake for instance this thing called Art Prize, which happens near my hometown.  Artists display their work publicly for a two week period, people flock to it, business booms and prizes are given.  But because the public gets to vote on the awards, year after year the top contenders are always littered with dreck that is more important for who or what it’s about, than how it’s about it.  That’s how a wax statue of Gerald R. Ford came close to winning one year – Ford is literally from the town where the contest happens.  It’s also how giant mosaics of Jesus wind up in the money.  In other words, things get votes based on the subject and not on the art, a fact I find offensive as all get out.

(Also, spare me on the argument that art is supposed to arose and provoke.  I’ve heard it before.)

Birth of a Nation theatrical poster.jpgInterestingly, the separability /inseparability of art and subject has been a topic of discussion recently amongst film bloggers due to the recent 100th anniversary of one of the most cinematically influential, and almost most racist, films in history, Birth of a Nation.  While you’re off reading about that, think about the kind of genius I am for tying that in here.

Final Verdict

The Life of Emile Zola – shrug.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

To be a pal and buy my books, jump over here and here and have a look.  I promise, buying always makes you feel good.

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