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The Life of Emile Zola

In the 1930’s Hollywood discovered journalism and offered up one movie after another to pay tribute to the reporters of the world. Front Page kicked off the trend in 1931 and eventually we saw one of the first parody movies, His Girl Friday, which was actually better than Front Page, a movie that served up a fresh perspective on the journalist-as-crusading-hero genre Citizen Kane, which may be the best movie ever made, and in 1937 the genre even produced a best picture winner, Life of Emile Zola.

For those who haven’t heard of the guy, Zola was a 19th century French writer who brought to the surface many of society’s ills. L’Assoimmoir was an examination of alcoholism in the Parisian working class. Nana looked at prostitution. Germinal took the mining industry to task for failures to implement safety measures. What Upton Sinclair did with The Jungle in the US, Zola had been doing for decades with one book after another in France. Of course this caused him to run afoul of the French establishment, especially with his open criticism of Emperor Napoleon III, but it also made him the most popular writer in France.

However with popularity, he lost his edge. He had gone from trapping birds on his window sill for food to living a very comfortable life in a comfortable house at the end of the century when the Dreyfus Affair reeled him back in. If you haven’t heard of it, the Dreyfus Affair had late 19th century France on edge. After the Franco-Prusian War there was a near constant threat of France and Germany going to war once again (and of course they did in the 20th century, twice). At one point a French agent intercepted a letter to a military attaché in the German embassy which detailed many of the particulars of the French military. This of course was treason and the generals looked for the person who wrote the letter, finding Alfred Dreyfus. They had no proof at all that Dreyfus had anything to do with it, but he was a Jew so he wasn’t the sort of person they would miss. While Dreyfus was shipped off to a desolate island off the coast of South America, it came to the attention of an intelligence chief that a man named Esterhazy may have been the real culprit. However Esterhazy was a member of the old boys club, so he was found innocent in a sham of a trial and the intelligence officer was shipped off to Africa. Amid all this Dreyfus’s wife enlisted Zola’s help, and his scathing rebuke of the French justice system, J’Accuse, lead to the entire case being reexamined, and ultimately to Dreyfus winning his freedom.

The movie positions itself as a bio-pic of Zola, but it brushes over his earlier work with little fanfare. In what amounts to little more than an extended montage, Zola transforms from the starving artist to the toast of the town. The real focus of the film is the Dreyfus affair, which the movie does an excellent job of explaining. With the extended trial scene (Zola wrote J’Accuse in order to be sued for libel so that he could bring up Dreyfus in open court) we see just how hardheaded the criminal justice system can be when in the hands of a corrupt group bent on self preservation. We also get Zola’s impassioned closing statement, which is one of the best monologues in film.

Paul Muni delivers a wonderful performance in the lead role. By that point in his career he had already won an Oscar for his performance in The Story of Louis Pasteur and had won acclaim for his starring role in the original version of Scarface. (Sorry, Muni does not do a face plant in a pile of cocaine, followed by running through a door with a massive gun yelling "Say hello to my little friend!") This was the absolute height of Muni’s career, and landed him his fifth Oscar nomination, and fourth in five years. After that his career went basically nowhere and he ended up acting in made for TV movies through the 50’s, but here is on top of his game.

The trouble of course comes in the scope of the picture. It needed to be either a bio-pic of Zola, or a movie about the Dreyfus Affair. It tries to be both and does not entirely succeed in either.

Along with giving little or no recognition to Zola’s earlier career, we see a character named Paul and don’t know until he leaves that it is prominent French painter Paul Cezanne. The movie’s examination of Dreyfus was good, but somewhat incomplete. It mentions only in passing that anti-Semitism played a role in the military’s choice of scapegoat, when in reality anti-Semitism was the major underlying theme of the whole affair.

Not much else nominated that year made a lasting impact. Muni also starred in The Good Earth as a Chinese Farmer. (A Chinese farmer and a French writer all in one year isn’t bad work for a Ukrainian actor.) The Cary Grant romantic comedy The Awful Truth also got a nomination, but Oscar hates comedies, so that’s out. That also rules out a movie that didn’t get any nominations other than dance choreography, but should have been nominated for the big prize, A Day at the Races. Though not my favorite Marx Brothers movie (I prefer A Night at the Opera) it was an excellent movie, and funny from start to finish. And although Muni does a great job and this movie tells a story of injustice that not many people these days have heard of, the Marx brothers simply turned out a better product that year, and because is was funny instead of important, the Academy looked the other way.

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