Sunday, March 3, 2013

Life of Emile Zola, The (1937)

Director: William Dieterle

Academy Award for Best Screenplay

It is a new age were people of intelligence can have power over those with bestowed authority, this is the case studied in the Warner Bros. biographical picture The Life of Emile Zola. After the studio’s success with the acclaimed biopic The Story of Louis Pasture Warner Bros. brings back director William Dieterle and star Paul Muni for yet another film about a man who made great contributions in recent history, this time with the French novelist and intellectual Emile Zola. This financial and major critical success would further mark Warner’s as the studio or prestige pictures.

The Life of Emile Zola is a biographical dramatization of novelist Emile Zola, recounting his rise to fame before focusing on his influences on the scandal known as the Dreyfus affair. Paul Muni depicts the starving writer that becomes the incredibly successful author. After the first third of the film, scanning over Nola’s rise to prominence the author is introduced to the evidence that proves the innocence of a French officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildraut), who is sentenced to life imprisonment. Zola is made aware of an oversight cover-up by the military court marshal, followed by a major cover-up to mask mishandling of the situation. Making it his life’s mission to exonerate a man he had never met, Zola is determined to right a great wrong by the government. For his outspoken words Zola is persecuted by the people and courts of France, even causing him to flee to England to keep him from imprisonment, until a new rĂ©gime clears both the names of Dreyfus and Zola.

Masked as a biographical picture The Life of Emile Zola actually more resembles a court drama about an intellectual attempting to prove that power lies in knowledge rather than authority. Director William Dieterle quickly pans over the first third of the film showing the rise of a poor, struggling writer with a heart for uncovering truth rather than making things flowery to a well written and respected novelist and thinker. After quick introductions to the events around the Dreyfus affair, where a Jewish officer is quickly fingered, accused, tried, and convicted for leaking military information to Germany with absolutely no evidence, then discovering their mistake, but refusing to acknowledge it as to not slander their own shortcomings.

As director Dieterle manages to make a picture filling a feature that takes place primarily in quiet houses or a courtroom and turn it into a dramatic piece with style. Smooth camera moves with cranes and hundreds of extras gives the film scope for just how important the Dreyfus affair events were and how Zola affected the word for intellectuals. His piecing together of the story proves to be one of the years finest filmmaking ventures, receiving a nomination for best director for his work. He along with the superior acting by Paul Muni gives life to the man that was Emile Zola, turning a rather quiet being into a person with a voice heard by the multitudes for all time, proving that political authority does not give right to do whatever they please.

Paul Muni as Zola speaking to the court.
Muni’s performance proves in a way to be multifaceted. His younger Zola is a bit naive and overzealous, but that seems intentional to make his older Zola, the one the picture focuses on, to be more determined and stoic. Once known as a hard-nosed actor of grittier films of the likes of Scarface and I Am a Fugitive in a Chain Gang, Muni has transformed himself into a major dramatic actor, with this performance garnering a nomination for best actor. To make his depiction of Zola work for production Muni grew a beard for the role and shot most of the film before shaving to film the scenes of the younger Zola.

The Academy Award winning performance of Joseph Shildkraut as Alfred Dreyfus is one of that might leave audiences in wanting. The role of Dreyfus is very much an afterthought as the character is merely the object of the plot and not the emotional attachment for the audience to latch onto as much as Muni’s Emile Zola. In a role so simply written Shildkraut does his best to play a man that loses everything, including his hope up to the point where he set free, perhaps his finest moments in the picture. In those final scenes Shildkraut plays a man that is in such a daze so much so that after all these years lost when he is being set free  he cares a look of unimaginable and confused disbelief on his face.

On a lesser note in the film are the supporting roles of Gloria Holden and Gale Sondergaard. Holden’s role as Zola’s wife is rather forgettable, merely supplying a bouncing board for Muni’s actions on screen. This stage actress is flat in a role for such a major film. Sandergaar would have the more difficult task of being the wife of Dreyfus and the instigator for Zola to start looking into the Dreyfus affair. This award winning actress has to sell the idea that a man with all his life goals accomplished, in Zola, would fight for a man that he does not even know. Her role was small, but of great importance to the plot, which is why Sandergaard, the winner of best supporting actress of 1936, would be given this character to play.

The Life of Emile Zola would go on to be a well liked movie in theaters, even more so the film was a large critical success. Being held up as the greatest biography picture up to this point in American cinema, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards. This marked the first time in Academy Award history a film would receive double digit nominations, while taking home statues for best screenplay, best supporting actor, and accepting the prize of best picture. Even the National Board of Review, a governing body that overlook motion pictures, would hand the film its award for best film as well. Time finds favor in the production as The Life of Emile Zola remains smiled upon as one of the finest biopics of the period and for many years to come. Historians would hail the picture as significant with the honor of being named to the National Film Registry in 2000, preserving the feature for history.

The film has some very fine aspects that makes it stand out from the others on the year. Muni’s performance is inspiring, similar to, but a lesser extent of, Orson Welles’ performance in his masterpiece Citizen Kane. He commands the screen is particular moments that only a great actor can. The film moves and stirs, a sign a good picture, making it one of the finer films of the period.

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