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The Life of Emile Zola: Best Picture, 1937

thelifeofemilezolaposterThe 10th Annual Academy Awards were hosted by “hillbilly” comedian Bob Burns. The Life of Emile Zola was nominated for 10 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Assistant Director, Best Actor (Paul Muni), Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Screenplay, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. The major competition included a screwball comedy, The Awful Truth (6 nominations, 1 win), 2 literary adaptations, Captains Courageous (4 nominations, 1 win) and The Good Earth (5 nominations, 2 wins), and 2 movies about acting, Stage Door (4 nominations, 0 wins) and A Star Is Born (8 nominations, 2 wins).

Best Director went to Leo McCarey, who was upset that he had won it for The Awful Truth instead of his unnominated Make Way for Tomorrow, Spencer Tracy took Best Actor for his performance in Captains Courageous (outrageous accent and all), and A Star Is Born won Best Original Story. Meanwhile, Best Assistant Director (a short-lived category) went to In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon took Best Art Direction, The Hurricane won Best Sound, and One Hundred Men and a Girl got Best Original Score. This left The Life of Emile Zola with a paltry three awards, for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Screenplay.

While the movie is ostensibly (as the title indicates) a biopic dedicated to the exploration of the title character, the main narrative thrust is actually caught up in another man’s story: Alfred Dreyfus, of the infamous “Dreyfus Affair.” Although there is no intermission and only one title, these are actually two separate movies. One of them is interesting, and the other is about Emile Zola.

The latter comprises the first half of the film, beginning with Zola as the prototypical starving artist of Paris. Shivering in a tiny garret, which he shares with painter Paul Cézanne, Zola sits and expresses Great Ideas punctuated by wry witticisms. He labors gamely on beneath the burden of this meager existence for a few minutes until he gets his Big Break: a chance meeting with a tragically-beautiful prostitute named Nana, whose story he turns into his first smash-hit novel. This entire portion of the movie is just the worst sort of early-Hollywood pablum, and almost unbearable to watch. Things don’t really pick up until Dreyfus shows up, almost out of the blue.

Dreyfus’ plight, as a high-ranking member of the French military who was convicted of spying based solely on the fact that he was a Jew, is very stirringly and thoroughly developed from this point forward. So much so that I began to wonder where Zola went (not that I wanted him back, mind you). As the military scapegoat machine grinds into full gear, we are treated to some very fine scenes of Dreyfus protesting his innocence long past the point where anyone is listening. There is an excellent moment where his uniform is stripped of its insignia in the midst of a courtyard crowded with soldiers while a large group of people gawk from further away. Schildkraut’s is perhaps a one-note performance, but it is a well-played note.

There is also much to like in the work done by the officers who engineer Dreyfus’ downfall. Their actions are odious, but the performances are grounded and believable when they could so easily have been melodramatically villainous. The characterizations of the “bad guys” is an admirable and surprising bit of restraint in the midst of dramatic movie excess. The machinations of the military leaders as they scheme frantically in an effort to save face (even after Dreyfus’ innocence has become obvious and the identity of the real traitor revealed) manage to hold my interest by a thread as the movie ground towards the inexorable climax.

Zola, who has been made lazy and complacent by success, is prevailed upon by Dreyfus’ wife to take up the cause (a decision which he takes far too long to reach). This is followed by a thoroughly uninteresting courtroom segment, in which Zola alternates between making a mockery of the opposition and declaiming more Great Ideas ad nauseum.

This is precisely the sort of flagrant Oscar-bait prestige picture that ought to be an embarrassment to the Academy, which has far too often accepted such bloated and lifeless films as worthy and important simply because they proclaim themselves as such. In the interest of fairness I must acknowledge that here I speak with both the advantage of hindsight and the disadvantage of cultural distance; not perhaps the most fitting combination with which to pass judgment. Nevertheless, I very much doubt that The Life of Emile Zola would be appreciated by even enlightened contemporary audiences.

There are a number of worthy alternate choices to Emile Zola even among the other Best Picture nominees, such as the classic and hilarious The Awful Truth. However, the really obvious choice this year was only nominated for a single, minor Oscar which it failed to win. That film was both a genuine masterpiece and an industry game-changer; a landmark still watch and enjoyed by large audiences today. I am referring of course to Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated feature. Disney was presented with a special achievement award at the ceremony by none other than Shirley Temple. The award consisted of a full-size Oscar next to seven miniature Oscars mounted on a special base. When he was handed the award, Disney gushed, “I’m so proud of it, I could burst.” Shirley’s reply: “Oh! Don’t do that, Mr. Disney!”

It’s a great story, and the special recognition was certainly fitting, but it only draws greater attention to the fact that, from the beginning, animation has been largely kept in a world apart from more “legitimate” live-action filmmaking. It is an ongoing imbalance one might well hope to see rectified as soon as possible, perhaps even at the next ceremony with proper recognition given to Pixar’s masterful WALL-E. This is, of course, unlikely, but the Academy would do well to remember that, 70 years from now, only a few films will prove to have had the staying power of Snow White, and it is not impossible to hazard a guess as to what one or two of them will be.

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~ by Jared on December 22, 2008.

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