I’d never seen a Paul Muni movie before. My only knowledge of his work was that he was in the original Scarface film five years prior to The Life of Emile Zola. Within five minutes he had me mesmerized. His acting must have been absolutely revolutionary for the time. It is naturalistic, subtle and nuanced.
Going into the 1937 Oscars he was the reigning best actor having won the previous year for The Story of Louis Pasteur (also directed by William Dieterle). In this film he plays another historical figure in the true story of Emile Zola, a 19th century French author who was adept at stirring up trouble. He had a penchant for challenging the establishment, calling out institutional incompetence and exposing corruption. His story begins in Paris in 1862 as a penniless writer, struggling to survive. But his insistence to write what he believed even when they try to censor him pays off. He sells thousands of books, gaining fame and wealth as a result.
Over the next 30 years he becomes a respected academic who slowly drifts from his humble roots to a life of comfort. His physical transformation is really well done. Apparently Muni had a knack for doing his own aging makeup. It’s so complete that it’s probably why they used a more familiar image of Muni on the film’s poster.
It would be like putting a picture of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight on the movie poster for American Hustle.
In the second act the story turn its focus to Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a French-Jewish soldier falsely accused of treason in 1895. He is sent to Devil’s Island where he spends three years imprisoned.
When the army conspires against Dreyfus his wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) desperately turns to Zola for help. The Dreyfus case shakes Emile out of his doldrums and back into fighting the good fight.
The third act is a tense court trial that impeccably puts its hero up a tree and throws rocks at him. In particular the defense lawyer played by Donald Crisp is outstanding. He gave a great performance in Mutiny on the Bounty (Burkitt) as well. The sequence is fantastically written. Even 80 years later there’s very little cliché about it. It reminded me a lot of In the Name of the Father.
The story does get a little heavy-handed when Paul Muni isn’t on screen. For me it heightened just how electric his performance is. But his is not the only great performance. Schildkraut (Dreyfus) isn’t in the film much but he makes the most of it, ultimately winning best supporting actor.
There were a total of 10 nominations for The Life of Emile Zola, including picture, director, actor, supporting actor, story, screenplay (I still don’t know what the difference between story and screenplay is) and score. It won three—picture, supporting actor and screenplay (but not story…???).
Muni lost to Spencer Tracy who picked up his first best actor Oscar for Captains Courageous. This was his second straight nomination. Speaking of second straight, Luise Rainer became the first performer to win a second award. Not only that but she became the first person to win back-to-back Oscars!
While Emile Zola might not be a well-known historical figure to us today his story, especially as it related to Captain Dreyfus, is inspiring, engaging, tragic and beautifully told.
A Star is Born became the first color feature film nominated for best picture. It actually had 7 nominations that year, winning only best story (but not screenplay…???).
One of the movies nominated for best score made film history, an 83-minute film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the world’s first full-length Technicolor animated feature film with sound. It didn’t win best score and it would take a year before the Academy recognized the film’s significance but from that point on movies would never be the same.
DVD available from Netflix.