Thursday, April 16, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Life of Emile Zola

This is the fourth in my 2015 series in which I'm catching up with the best picture winners I haven't seen, in chronological order.

The Life of Emile Zola almost broke me.

When I was less than halfway through -- but had already fallen asleep six times -- I got on Facebook and loudly complained to my Flickcharters discussion group that it was the most boring movie I'd ever seen, and that it also "looked like crud."

Both of these were exaggerations, of course, and the 1937 best picture winner actually got a little better from there, managing to raise itself into a 2.5-star rating on Letterboxd before all was said and done.

Old-fashioned in many respects, The Life of Emile Zola is actually rather modern in one key area. That area does make a liar of its title, however.

Yes, I think I was looking forward so little to this movie not only because its reputation for being boring preceded it, but because Emile Zola, a 19th century French writer, seemed like a strange person to be the focus of one of only 88 movies that have won best picture. I had never heard of him outside of the context of this movie, so how important could he really be?

The answer is, somewhat, and the movie actually does something that would become a bit of a hallmark of future Oscar winners: It is probably the most socially liberal movie to have come down the chute to that point. Many subsequent best picture winners have championed causes, but this was one of the first -- even if that cause was just the innocence of an accused traitor.

And that's the way I first described this movie as being somewhat modern. Modern biopics -- Lincoln and Selma being two recent examples -- tend to recognize the wisdom of focusing on a single important section of the person's life, not a cradle-to-grave recitation of his or her greatest hits. When The Life of Emile Zola gets good -- and that may be a slightly inflated way to describe its eventual quality -- it's because it starts to focus exclusively on Zola's impassioned written defense of Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason. What was most pernicious about his resulting false imprisonment is that many of the military leaders who put him there knew he was innocent -- but scapegoated him in order to save face, for the good of the military and the good of France.

So it's not really "the life" of Emile Zola. It's 45 frustrating minutes of some of Zola's greatest hits, followed by a slightly less frustrating hour-and-fifteen minutes of Zola's sometimes peripheral involvement in this sensational treason case.

The movie does look sort of like crud, though. Given some of the films I've already seen in this series alone, all of which predated Zola, I had a hard time believing a film that looked so scruffy and so small in scope could muscle out the other nominees. But then I looked at the rest of the field. Of the nine other films that were nominated in 1937, the only other I'd seen is A Star is Born, and that one looks pretty cruddy as well. Maybe 1937 just was not a great year for movies.

Although the film does get on track in its second half and features a justified Oscar-winning performance from supporting actor Joseph Schildkraut (as Dreyfus), it starts out inauspiciously indeed. The opening scene features a younger version of Zola and a character that I learn in retrospect was supposed to be Paul Cezanne, but the dialogue is so poorly recorded and the scene so poorly introduced that I felt like I'd just been thrown into the middle of the proceedings. Meanwhile, both characters spend most of the scene in beds in some kind of loft, making them seem a bit like invalids.

The ensuing scenes, which in my memory are just a succession of book titles coming off presses as a lame means of showing his career blossom, were when I fell asleep repeatedly. I don't think I actually missed any of the movie, as I am very good about pausing, but all the eyelid drooping certainly made my brain a little squishy, and unable to grab on to anything in a dull movie indeed.

Even when the movie does start to become about Dreyfus, it takes a while before Zola actually gets involved, and some hero he is -- his first instinct is to say "I'm old and can't fight the good fight anymore." Of course, he does eventually get involved, and for the second hour, the movie successfully functions as a series of courtroom scenes in which Zola is being accused of libel for his newspaper article shining a spotlight on the real traitor. I was reminded a little bit of some movies I've seen in the past few years and loved, involving men accused of wrongdoing by the military -- I'm thinking specifically of Breaker Morant and Paths of Glory. Unfortunately, Zola reminds me of those movies only in terms of its approach, not its quality.

I did find that out that this was not necessarily a movie that set out with its sights on best picture. Paul Muni, who is fine as Zola, also starred in a movie called The Story of Louis Pasteur the year before, for which he won the best actor award. Although I haven't seen that film, these movies taken together strike me more as workmanlike serials than works of art. Hey, you can't blame The Life of Emile Zola if a bunch of Oscar voters told it it was better than it really was.

Okay, enough of that.

As it turns out, I've been pretty good at watching best picture winners from the 1940s. To get the next movie on the schedule we have to go all the way forward to 1949. So in May I will be watching All the King's Men.

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