81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Life of Emile Zola, The

August 29th, 2009 · No Comments · 1937, Adaptation, Biopic, Black and White, Composer: Max Steiner, Donald Crisp, Drama, Left-Leaning Politics, Life of Emile Zola, Paul Muni, Warner Bros. Pictures

The Life of Emile Zola I approached this movie with three primary questions at the forefront of my mind:

1. Who was Emile Zola?
2. Who was Paul Muni?
3. What is this movie about?

To the first, I turn to an entry on Wikipedia:

Émile François Zola (2 April 1840 – 29 September 1902) was an influential French writer, the most important exemplar of the literary school of naturalism, an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism, and a major figure in the political liberalisation of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus.

To the second, I turn first to The Oscar Stars From A-Z by Roy Pickard who writes,

Oscar Stars From A-Z“Every time Paul Muni parts his beard and looks down a microscope it costs this company two million dollars!” moaned Jack Warner about Muni’s inability to raise any great excitement at the box office. All of which was a little unfair, for Muni and his biographical roles brought prestige and the first major Academy Awards to the studio when Warners badly needed them. A winner for his portrait of scientist Louis Pasteur, he was also nominated on four other occasions – for his murderer awaiting execution in The Valiant, his criminal on the run in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, the French novelist Emile Zola and, when he was in his sixties, his moving portrayal of a selfless Jewish doctor working Brooklyn in The Last Angry Man.

As to the third, I turn to Oscar A to Z: A Complete Guide to More Than 2,400 Movies Nominated For Academy Awards, by Charles Matthews:

This was the first best picture Oscar for Warners, and in part it honored a genre, the socially conscious biopic, at which the studio excelled…”

Two things are interesting to note: (1) This is the second biopic in a row to win an Academy Award (the first being The Great Ziegfeld in 1936), and (2) The Life of Emile Zola, a film about a man (Zola) who fights against social inequalities and class struggle (Matthews labels it being “socially conscious”) won the Academy Award in 1937, a year after unionization swept Hollywood. According to the book Sixty Years of Hollywood,

Sixty Years of HollywoodUnionism, a growing force in Hollywood despite efforts by conservatives like Cecil B. DeMille to head it off, finally took hold and, from 1936 the studios comprised a “closed shop” with guilds and unions exerting control that in times of underemployment would strangle the industry…as weekly admissions reached eighty million, Hollywood struggled to provide audiences with the material they wanted, mostly light-hearted escapist musicals and comedies.

Light-hearted escapist musicals and comedies The Life of Emile Zola is not. A film about the downtrodden proletariat exploited by the corrupt bourgeoisie it is.

Coincidence?

Maybe. Hey, I’m just sayin’…

Here’s what the movie is about, according to Matthews:

Oscar A-ZMuni plays the nineteenth-century French writer, who comes to the defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a French officer unjustly convicted of espionage and sentenced to Devil’s Island. Rich, vivid, and surprisingly exciting film, though the title is misleading, since it deals with only one episode in Zola’s life.

Apparently, Muni was a bit of an odd duck. According to his entry on Wikipedia:

Film critic David Shipman called Muni “an actor of great integrity” and he prepared for his roles meticulously. Muni was widely recognized as an eccentric if talented individual. He would go into a rage whenever anyone wore red, but at the same time he could often be found between sessions relaxing with his violin. Over the years, he also became increasingly dependent on his wife, Bella, who terrified directors by forcing them to redo scenes that did not meet her satisfaction.

Finally, there’s this from History of the Academy Award Winners by Nathalie Fredrik and Auriel Douglas:

[Muni] received five Academy nominations in all, an impressive number at any time, and the more so in Muni’s case as he made just 23 films in his entire movie career.

By my calculations, that’s being nominated 22% of the time, or a slightly over 1 in 4 movies. Impressive.

So why haven’t I heard more about Paul Muni?

I AccuseThe movie took a while to get started. But the court room scenes about 1/2 to 3/4 through (from charges brought against Zola by France’s government to silence him after his famous “I Accuse!” article in the newspaper) were riveting. Muni’s Zola was an impassioned champion for the underdog, a Quixotic chap who believed the pen was mightier than the sword. A few of his declarations – such as the stirring “Truth is on the march. And nothing will stop it” – hit home, for at this time America is undergoing the same kind of struggle of the individual against the collective, liberty against tyranny.

The scenes in this movie were long, especially those carried almost solely by Muni’s Zola. If not for Muni’s undeniable power as an actor, this movie would have been crushed under the weight of its own self importance.

In addition to being a man of reason, Zola was also, apparently, an atheist. Or, at the very least, a man angry at the church. A quote attribute to him states, “Civilization will not attain perfection until the last stone from the last church falls on the last priest.”

Marx, himself, could not have stated it more eloquently.

Yet, according to an article published in the International Socialism Journal, Winter 2002,

Zola was not a Marxist. He was, however, an anti-capitalist–almost every page he wrote was a denunciation of the greed, brutality, corruption and hypocrisy that characterised French capitalism in his day. Since then the system has had to make some concessions to working people, but it claws them back whenever possible. Now that the long detour of Stalinism is over, capitalism is reverting to the pre-1914 model of the unbridled pursuit of power and profit, sinking into congenital corruption; increasingly Zola’s descriptions have a ring of familiarity. Ultimately capitalism keeps going by devouring human flesh, just like the pit in Germinal. Zola never made his peace with the bourgeoisie, and those who read him will be encouraged not to make theirs.

So, again, I wonder aloud…

Is it a coincidence that Hollywood was unionized the year before The Life of Emile Zola was released? And I wonder what the connection is between this film winning an Academy Award and unions running every aspect of Hollywood’s day-to-day operations?

I’m just sayin’…

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