Well, it's time to talk about another movie you've never heard of. In my Oscar history quest I have come to 1937's The Life of Emile Zola, the story of the 19th century French writer (played by Paul Muni), infamous for his radical leftist views, unsavoury literature, and accusing the army of covering up its own injustices for the sake of keeping its image clean. To some he was a muckraker, to others a champion of truth. Guess which side the movie takes?
It is what we call a biopic, but really only in the loosest sense of the word. A lengthy disclaimer at the beginning tells us that while some of the events are true, it is mostly fictionalized, the better to immortalize Mr Zola as the French counterpart of Upton Sinclair. Most of the movie is about the end of his life, when he apparently decided to take up the cause of a Jewish army officer wrongfully accused and convicted of treason. He is brought to trial for his accusations, on charges of slander and other things.
The movie itself isn't terribly impressive. I guess we don't really watch it because it hasn't stood the test of time. Today we couldn't name who Zola was. Its legacy is not in the subject matter, but in the delivery, especially in the writing. Until then, lots of film dialog was purely functional, either humorous or dramatic. The arts of playwriting and screenwriting didn't seem to have much overlap. Here, though, the writing is inspired. It is never toned down for the sake of the audience, and retains what must have been the fire and passion of Zola's own work. The best of these occurs in Zola's trial. Muni gives a spectacular monologue, something that would be captivating on stage but becomes arresting on the screen. Throughout the dialog has wit and sparkle, but its greatest achievement is in these few moments.
That said, I wouldn't consider this an essential classic film experience. It is charming, but not touching, and verges on preaching and moralizing a little too often. So now you know.
The Life of Emile Zola features Paul Muni, Joseph Schilkraut, Gloria Holden, and Gale Sondergaard, and is not rated.
by Chase Harrison