Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle                                  Writers: Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald
Film Score: Max Steiner                                   Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Henry O’Neill and Joseph Schildkraut

The winner of the Academy Award for best picture of 1937 went to The Life of Emile Zola, another in a string of films that attempted to deal with the increasing restriction of freedom in Nazi Germany. The second half of the film deals with the Dreyfuss Affair in France at the end of the nineteenth century, in which a Jewish officer was convicted on treason simply because of his religion. Thus, the criticisms that the title character wields in the name of freedom could just as easily be transferred to Germany in the years before World War Two. Nevertheless, the episode was an embarrassment to the French and so the film was not seen in that country until the early fifties. The complicated writing credits are due to the fact that everyone who had written anything on the Dreyfuss Affair at the time came out of the woodwork to accuse Warner Brothers of plagiarism, and the studio responded by purchasing the rights to all of those works by three authors. As a result, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg earned Oscars, along with screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine, for their play about Dreyfuss. Apparently Bette Davis expressed interest in playing the character of Nana, but since the part was so small the studio turned her down. Paul Muni was fresh off of his success in The Story of Louis Pasteur and so the part was a natural. Interestingly, while Joseph Schildkraut has a very small part as Dreyfuss he was given the Academy Award for best supporting actor, though this would be his last film at Warners.

The film begins in Paris, in 1862. Paul Muni as Zola and Vladimir Sokoloff as the painter Cezanne are starving artists sharing a flat together, and Gloria Holden is Muni’s fiancée. After he gets a job at a book publisher, he gets married and begins publishing his novels. But almost immediately the government wants to ban them as being offensive and he gets fired. Soon he begins writing about the injustices he sees all around him, police corruption, lack of protection for poor citizens, rampant crime. Then he meets prostitute Erin O’Brien-Moore and uses her life story as the basis for his novel Nana, which becomes a huge bestseller, and his publisher John Litel is pleased to give him a royalty check that gets the writer out of poverty. Then the Franco-Prussuan war impoverishes all of France, the author writes the book Downfall to expose the truth about the war. The general staff demands he be punished in retaliation, but Muni continues to write book after book criticizing the flaws in French society, and becomes a rich man in the process. When a letter is sent to the German attaché in Paris from the home of Robert Barrat as Count Esterhazy, it is stolen and shown to the French high command. The letter appears to be a list of secret military documents and it works its way up the chain of command beginning with Louis Calhern and finally the Minister of war Gilbert Emery who suddenly decides that since Joseph Schildkraut, as Alfred Dreyfus, is a Jew, he must be the traitor.

At first Muni, fat and happy as a bestselling author, is completely uninterested in the case. The court-martial finds Schildkraut guilty, and he is exiled to Devil’s Island after a public humiliation. Later, French intelligence officer Henry O’Neill uncovers the truth, but the general staff insist on covering the whole thing up to hide their mistake. Schildkraut’s wife, Gale Sondergaard, won’t rest until her husband has been exonerated and she finally gets Muni back to his old form and he puts his reputation on the line for justice. Muni does a solid job, but it’s not really the part itself that makes the film great but the story. Nevertheless, he delivers an impressive closing speech during his trial. This was Gloria Holden’s first film after the successful Dracula’s Daughter at Universal the year before, playing one of the many wife characters that would populate the bulk of her career. Donald Crisp plays Muni’s lawyer to good effect, while Ralph Morgan appears as the commander of Paris. And Henry O’Neill does a splendid job as the one officer who tries to be honest. The film is directed well by William Dieterle, one of Warner’s stable of great directors, and he was nominated for an Oscar, as was Max Steiner for his film score--though in those days the award would have gone to the head of department instead of the actual composer. The film was nominated for nine Oscars and won three. The Life of Emile Zola contains a wealth of great character acting and is an uplifting story of social activism that still resonates with audiences today.

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