Wednesday 29 August 2012

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Emile Zolas Liv
Biographical movies are tricky. Very few people lived a life that fit exactly into a Hollywood format, so when you see a biographical movie you have to wonder how real it is. Or when attempt are made to keep it real some of the flow or moment is sacrificed in the name of truth. Fortunately the life of Emile Zola was sufficiently interesting to make a nice movie out of it though I wonder if he really was as saintly as depicted in the film.  

According to this version of the story Zola started out as a poor writer slumming it with Cezanne. They were politically active and full of social indignation. His breakthrough was a portrait of a prostitute that became an instant bestseller and from then on he was on the track for stardom and wealth. Later in life he is roused from a complacent life by the Dreyfus scandal. In an attempt to cover up an internal leak in the military high command a lowly artillery officer is blamed with high treason. Zola being a staunch enemy of the high command clique is moved by Dreyfus’s wife to take action in writing and speeches, most notably his J’accuse article and his defense speech when he himself is accused for treason by the high command.

The saintly aspect is the most difficult part to cope with. Paul Muni got a lot of acclaim for his performance as Emile Zola, but for a modern viewer he becomes too two-dimensional as the saint-turned complacent-remade-into-sainthood. I like Paul Muni. He was really good and convincing in “I am a fugitive from a chain gang”, but Emile Zola is a very different character. He is a firebrand speaker, filled with social indignation, but also a cozy teddy of a grandfather type. The fact that Paul Muni is able to do both types, but also be the intense tightlipped fugitive in the chain gang movie testifies to his qualities as a character actor. The two-dimensionality problem rests with the direction and script.    

While this is obviously Paul Muni’s movie the character of Alfred Dreyfus, played by Joseph Schildkraut, is threatening to steal the stage. He is very convincing as the patriotic officer, who insists on his professionalism and his innocence, but whose spirit is gradually broken on the miserable island where he is imprisoned. He did end up getting an Oscar for best supporting act and it is well deserved. His wife on the other hand is terrible. The faithful, fighting wife crying out her desperation to move Zola into action is simply not convincing. It looks fake and overacted and it plays badly with Muni. After a while I was groaning every time she appeared.

I cannot help comparing Zola’s final speech during his trial with that of Mr. Smith in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”. Where Smiths speech is an appeal to common decency to a jaded and corrupted audience and takes him nowhere, Zola’s speech is also dismissed by a corrupt military audience, but his speech is a much more clever oration. He is effectively exposing the hypocrisy of the military leadership and his accusers and while he is also declared guilty by default he manages to make his accusers the guilty part and effectively, in turn, brings down the military establishment. No need for a deus-ex-machina here. Singlehandedly he manages to turn the tide and talk his way out of his predicament.

The complot against Dreyfus was very real and also a real game changer in France and therefore in itself interesting to watch unfold in the movie. And the reality of it makes it relevant also today. The ranking establishment covering up for itself out of self-preservation is a recurrent phenomenon and choosing an outsider as scapegoat, in this case a Jewish junior officer, to take the blame is also something we are not done with. So, simply for these reasons the movie is worth seeing.

Had Zola been less pompous and more… human, this could easily have become one of my favorite movies of the thirties. As it is it is definitely one of the better ones and certainly entertaining. A history lesson from an age where history portrayed was usually heavily tainted by creative editing. This may be too, but it is less obvious.


  1. Pretty much all biographical films, at least through the forties, whitewashed their subjects. It was only in more recent decades that more films started showing the bad with the good.

    And sorry, but I'm going to continue to disagree with you on the speech in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Had there been no speech, there is no change of heart by the other Senator, and the truth never comes out.

    1. He he, I knew that my Mr. Smith review would be controversial, sorry about that. But then, it is fun to stir the waters a bit.
      In any case, true or not, the Zola movie made a lot more of an impact on me, both in terms of the subject matter and in terms of resolving the "crisis". That was basically my point with the comparison.

  2. As a tool for history, this is an effective film. Muni has a tendency to become hammy. I agree with you that Joseph Schildkraut upstages Muni in the acting department. And while the court room scenes are rather bombastic, they are probably the element that pushes the movie over the average threshold.

    1. Bombastic, yes, but also effective. This was an important story that needed to be told, especially in the thirties.