The Life of Emile Zola (1937); Zola And His Times

The Life of Emile Zola won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production in 1938; there were nine other nominees, but I have not heard of any of them. It got nominations in nine other categories and won two, Joseph Schildkraut getting Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dreyfus, and the script winning Best Adaptation; deservedly so.

However, The Life of Emile Zola does not make the top ten of either way of counting IMDB votes. There is no doubt at all about the top film from 1937 in our civilisation’s collective memory: it is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It received only one Oscar nomination, for Best Score, and did not win.

This is the official poster for the film. I find it a bit odd that in fact Paul Muni as Zola is bearded throughout the film, but cleanshaven here. (It’s a bit less odd that he doesn’t have the same impressive girth that Zola developed in real life – worth noting that William Powell also played a slimmed-down Flo Ziegfeld last year.)

The film, based on a biography by Matthew Josephson, is another biopic, this time of crusading French journalist and writer Emile Zola. As usual, I watched it on Eurostar – it’s great the way most of these are around two hours long, exactly the time it takes the train from Brussels to London, a technological feat unthinkable eighty years ago (let alone during Zola’s lifetime). The plot is very simple: Zola as a young writer in Paris exposes the dark side of the city in his novel Nana, inspired by meeting a young prostitute; the novel’s success, and the success of his other writing, makes him complacent; he is provoked to take up the case of Alfred Dreyfus, wrongly accused of espionage by the French Army, and after much turmoil and a prolonged courtroom case, wins, only to die in a domestic accident as Dreyfus is being freed. Here’s the trailer.

There’s not much to dislike about this. There is one pretty big issue, for which the film received some criticism both at the time and more recently. In historical reality, the case against Dreyfus was deeply tinged with anti-Semitism, because he was Jewish. The word “Jew” is not mentioned once in the film. Is this a deliberate cover-up, as some have alleged, to court German audiences, or for whatever other sordid reason?

I’m not so sure. It is worth noting that the Warner brothers themselves who ran the studio, William Dieterle who directed it, Heinz Herald who co-wrote the Oscar-winning script, Joseph Schildkraut who won the Oscar for playing Dreyfus, and the film’s star Paul Muni in the title role, were all Jewish. Herald had actually fled the Nazis when they came to power, and Dieterle and Schildkraut were also from Germany and may well have still had vulnerable friends and relatives in the country. I don’t feel it’s ever my job to second-guess the responses of the oppressed; I do think that anyone who gave the Dreyfus affair even half an extra thought after watching the movie would have worked out what was going on. The point is very clearly if silently made in the shot of the officers’ roll during the scene where the French military leadership decide to frame Dreyfus:

If I may have a slightly different quibble, the women in the film don’t get a lot to do, and despite the fact that Paris between 1865 and 1905 was already a pretty multi-ethnic society, we see only white faces.

However. It’s a great story. Muni is tremendously watchable as Zola, so is Schildkraut as Dreyfus, so is Vladimir Sokoloff as Paul Cézanne. We all hate injustice, and love to see someone standing up for what is right despite the consequences. Flo Seinfeld, the subject of the previous year’s Oscar-wining biopic, ran roughshod over the feelings of his lovers, friends and business partners for the sake of his somewhat dubious art; Zola here does the same, but for the sake of freedom and justice, and certainly I found it much more sympathetic. There’s nothing particularly spectacular or innovative about the way the story is told (some decent incidental music), but if it’s a good story you don’t really need that.

I’m going to divert into a reflection on the symbolism of France and Paris in these films. In both Wings and All Quiet on the Western Front, France is a place of fascination and moral hazard. The Life of Emile Zola is set almost entirely in Paris (apart from Zola’s brief exile in London, and Dreyfus’s imprisonment on Devil’s Island). It’s clearly presented as a place of superior achievement, the centre of the cultural world, with its own drama and internal dynamics which the audience is expected to recognise and relate to. The path to An American in Paris is clear.

One last note – the memorable minor key variation of the opening phrase of the Marseillaise, which I know well from Casablanca, is used here for the French defeat in 1870.

Now that I’ve got through the first ten winners of Best Picture and its historical predecessors, I think I can give a running total of my ranking of the films so far. I actually found this pretty easy, though with slight hesitation about the ordering of 6th/7th place and 3rd/4th/5th.

10) The Great Ziegfeld (Oscar for 1936)
9) Cimarron (1930/31)
8) Cavalcade (1932/33)
7) Wings (1927/28)
6) Broadway Melody (1928/29)
5) Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
4) Grand Hotel (1931/32)
3) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
2) It Happened One Night (1934)
1) All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)

Next up is You Can’t Take It With You, of which I know nothing at all.

The Life of Zola is the first Oscar-winner based on a non-fiction book, the grandly titled Zola and his time: the history of his martial career in letters, with an account of his circle of friends, his remarkable enemies, cyclopean labors, public campaigns, trials and ultimate glorification by Matthew Josephson. I got it and raced through the 500 pages. As is often the case, the film is based on just a small section of the book (eg The Duchess is based on a chapter or two of Amanda Foreman’s biographyGame Change is based on a couple of pages of the book by Heilemann and Halperin). Here is the second paragraph of the third chapter:

The city was under a reign of terror conducted by the ruthless General Espinasse, ever since the attempt on the life of Napoleon III by three Italian “anarchists,” Orsini, Pieri and Rudio. The press was muzzled completely, and the enemies of the despot were banished or silent.

I found it very interesting, particularly as I have just read a book about Ulysses, to see the connection between Zola’s radical political activity and beliefs, and (what was more important to him) his breaking the conventions of novel-writing. I may even try some of his books some day – Germinal, Nana, Thérèse Raquin And his autobiographical first novel La confession de Claude all sound promising.

A lot of what’s in the film is invented – the quarrel with Cézanne didn’t really happen like that, Nana was not his first successful novel (not even his first successful novel about Nana), he was not dragged into the Dreyfus case by the tears of Lucie Dreyfus, he wasn’t offered membership of the Academy in 1897 (but kept begging for it), he died in his bedroom with his wife rather than alone in his study, and Dreyfus was not exonerated until several years after Zola’s death. These are necessary edits of the truth to make a good movie, I suppose. On the other hand, the real-life attempted assassination of Dreyfus in 1908, while he was attending the ceremony of Zola’s interment in the Pantheon, is a dramatic end to the book that is skipped in the film. The anti-Semitism inherent to the Dreyfus case is made absolutely clear, though I’m sure that the full facts will have been even worse.

The part of Zola’s life almost completely omitted from the film is of course his love-life. As a student in a garret in his late teens and early twenties, he lived with an unnamed girlfriend who then drops out of the narrative completely. (Wikipedia quotes Henri Mitterand to the effect that her first name was Berthe.) As well as his wife Alexandrine (with whom he had no children), he had a long-term lover, Jeanne Rozerot, who bore him a son and a daughter. When he died he left all of his estate to his wife and nothing to his children or their mother. (I’m glad to say that his widow acknowledged and adopted the children, who in turn adopted the surname Emile-Zola.) Josephson conveys this as part of Zola’s general passion for life in general, and is rather critical of his wife for being too dramatic about the situation. I think Josephson could have found a bit more sympathy for Alexandrine, and Zola’s treatment of his children does not speak well of him.

It’s rather an old-fashioned biography, but a cracking good read, and it’s particularly impressive that Josephson was able to boil down vast amounts of archival research in French for an American audience. It’s also copiously illustrated with cartoons and copies of manuscripts.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)