Director: William Dieterle
Screenwriters: Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine
By Marilyn Ferdinand
As part of its 31 Days of Oscar series, Turner Classic Movies aired the Best Picture winner for 1937 last night: The Life of Emile Zola. Not only was the film honored as the Outstanding Production, as the award was called in 1937, but it beat out eight other films for the award. If I had read the nominees before seeing the picture, I might have wondered whether the Academy was again looking to be high-minded in its choice—after all, the incredible The Awful Truth and the noteworthy A Star Is Born and The Good Earth were also in contention, plus a couple of my personal favorites, Lost Horizon and Stage Door. Now, having seen Zola, I must agree that it was a very worthy winner for its year—or any year.
Like any self-respecting biopic, Zola creates fictions from real details, such as the friendship between Zola and Paul Cezanne, and spins them to dramatic purpose. The film opens with the impoverished Zola (Paul Muni) and Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) sharing a drafty Paris garret. To keep warm, Zola tears apart the bourgeois novels lining a shelf and burns the pages in their potbelly stove; what they were doing in the home of such a literary purist as Zola is never explored, nor need it be. This act of destruction and the presence of Cezanne are devices used to establish Zola’s young idealism and link him back to it after he becomes rich and famous.
Zola’s mother (Florence Roberts) and his fiancee Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) come to the flat and inform Zola that he has been offered a job as a clerk in a publishing company. He now feels able to marry Alexandrine and establish a home for them, but he still barely pays the bills on his meager earnings. One night, as Zola and Cezanne share a dinner out, a prostitute seeks shelter at their table from the police, who are making one of their periodic sweeps of the Pigalle district. Zola hears Nana’s (Erin O’Brien-Moore) sad story and turns it into his first bestseller, Nana, a racy but sympathetic look at the problems of the poor and outcast. He brings a copy of the book to her stuffed with a share of his royalties and his profuse thanks.
His accounts of social injustice continue for a time, but eventually cease. Zola produces one hit after another, shorthanded in the film by showing the covers of each book in succession, and segueing into a visit from Cezanne to Zola’s mansion. Zola is eager to show off his expensive objets d’art to Cezanne, who merely announces that he is leaving Paris and does not intend to write. “Artists should remain poor,” he says in quiet admonishment to the complacent Zola. Again, we are made to feel the prick of conscience that the fictional Cezanne represents.
At about this time, career soldier Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is accused of treason for smuggling Army secrets to the Prussians. He maintains his innocence but is convicted and transported to Devil’s Island for life. Several years of fruitless attempts to exonerate her husband have Dreyfus’ wife (Gale Sondergaard) appeal to Zola to intercede. Now a respected man of letters soon to be elected to membership in the Académie Française, Zola rejects her petition by saying that his rabble-rousing days are over. Yet he finds himself pouring over the documents that she says prove her husband’s innocence and the guilt of another officer, Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat). Zola looks at the letter about the Académie Française and predictably tears it in half.
Zola begins a campaign to exonerate Dreyfus and bring the real spy and the conspirators in the cover-up to justice when he goes to the newspapers and reads his famous tract J’Accuse, which is quoted in part in the film. He courts a slander trial, which eventuates, in hopes of bringing the case back into the public consciousness, but the court will not allow Dreyfus’ court martial to be mentioned. Zola loses the trial, which was heavily slanted by the Army and the courts to go against him, but escapes to England to avoid prison and continues to write articles critical of the Army and the courts. A new French government brings in reforms and reopens the Dreyfus case. Eventually, Dreyfus’ conviction is overturned, and he returns to Paris, where he is restored to his family and military career. Zola never meets Dreyfus, having died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heating stove in his study the night before they were to meet.
All of the dramatic conventions of a biopic can be found in The Life of Emile Zola, and normally that would be enough for me to pick to pieces any day of the week. So why do I stand in such admiration of this film? Again, The Word. The screenwriters have done a superlative job of creating dialogue (though cribbing some from Zola, of course) and situations that crackle with drama, yes, but also truth.
I’d go so far as to say that Zola’s slander trial is the best courtroom scene ever filmed. The entire proceeding teems with the active participation of the entire courtroom and the throngs of Parisians out in the streets. A much looser affair than Americans are used to seeing in any of our courtroom dramas, witnesses take the stand and replace each other almost at will. Swearing in seems optional. The defense calls Mme. Dreyfus, but the chief justice refuses to allow her to answer a single question. Indeed, he plays favorites with alacrity, a believable face of bias and government corruption acting believably, repeating “The question cannot be put,” in a successful effort to prevent Zola’s defense attorney Labori (Donald Crisp) from building a case. According to newspaper reports of the time, accuracy was a watchword in building this scene, save for the fact that the impassioned defense summation to the jury was made by Labori, not Zola. This is an inaccuracy that works brilliantly, however, and puts the capper on a lively and varied performance by Paul Muni, though one not without its hammy moments.
The humiliation of Dreyfus—stripped of the signs of his military rank and paraded in front of the regiment and the public at large—was horrifying to watch. Dreyfus maintained his strict military discipline even in this dark hour, and the perfunctory behavior of the soldiers during his incarceration and then at his release seems otherworldly. By contrast, when Dreyfus’ cell is unlocked for the last time, he walks out, then back in, out and back in—a truly human, wonderfully acted and directed moment that could have been dispensed with in a film more interested in bones than flesh. It is fitting to me that Schildkraut won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, whereas Muni was denied a golden boy.
The final eulogy, delivered by Cezanne, is perhaps the work of the Oscar-winning screenwriters (I can’t find evidence to the contrary):
Let us not mourn him. Let us rather salute that bright spirit of his which will live forever, and like a torch, enlighten a younger generation inspired to follow him.
You who are enjoying today’s freedom, take to your hearts the words of Zola. Do not forget those who fought the battles for you and bought your liberty with their genius and their blood. Do not forget them and applaud the lies of fanatical intolerance.
Be human. For no man in all the breadth of our land more fervently loved humanity than Zola.
He had the simplicity of a great soul.
He was enjoying the fruits of his labor—fame, wealth, security—when suddenly, out of his own free will, he tore himself from all the peaceful pleasures of his life, from the work he loved so much because he knew that their is no serenity, save in justice; no repose—save in truth.
At the sound of his brave words, France wakened from her sleep. How admirable is the genius of our country. How beautiful the soul of France which for centuries taught right and justice to Europe and the world.
France is once again today the land of reason and benevolence because one of her sons, through an immense work and a great action, gave rise to a new order of things based on justice and the rights common to all men.
Let us not pity him because he suffered and endured. Let us envy him. Let us envy him because his great heart won him the proudest of destinies: He was a moment of the conscience of man.
The only serious fault I can find with this film is that it neglects to mention that Dreyfus was a Jew and that Zola spoke out against the anti-Semitism behind the Dreyfus Affair. At a time when the Nazis were already killing Jews, this film could have—and should have—been more frank. l