Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937)

Paul Muni in The Life of Emile Zola
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Life of Emile Zola
Release Date: August 11, 1937
Director:  William Dieterle
Written By: Norman Reilly Raine (screenplay), Heinz Herald & Geza Herczeg (screenplay and story), Matthew Josephson (source material) 
Starring: Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 116 minutes

Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Picture
-Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Schilkraut)
-Best Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 7
-Best Actor (Paul Muni)
-Best Director (William Dieterle)
-Best Original Story
-Best Art Direction
-Best Sound
-Best Assistant Director
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Awful Truth
-Captain Courageous
-Dead End
-The Good Earth
-In Old Chicago
-Lost Horizon
-One Hundred Men and a Girl
-Stage Door
-A Star is Born

And the winner is...

Nowadays, the biopic is a common Best Picture candidate. Almost every year sees a handful of nominees be rooted in some way in real stories. What is it about these figures that compel us, and what separates them from fantastical worlds that are often more cinematic and engaging? Early on in Best Picture history, things were looking a little different. With director William Dieterle's The Life of Emile Zola being the 10th winner in the award's history, it was only the second biopic to win the category. It was also a film that set the stage for what the general format for these type of stories could be. It wasn't always about spectacle. Sometimes it was about performance. With Paul Muni as Emile Zola, the film gave the actor a showcase and a new reason to care about biopics.

From the beginning, there was consistent controversy around the story. With its focus on the Dreyfus Affair, it was already proving to be a political nightmare. It would be banned in France - the country of which the story takes place - until 1952. Ernst Lubitsch felt that Muni was the only actor who could do the role justice. However, since he was under contract with Warner Brothers, he sold the rights to them. While Jack L. Warner was Jewish, he demanded that all references to Judaism be removed from the script. What was the reasoning for this? It was to help avoid hurting business for the film in Nazi-occupied Germany. Despite this, the film's message has been interpreted as a study of the growing repression in Germany at the time. Even then, there's debate on if the film was somewhat cowardice for its removal of Jewish culture.

The film's production was rather peculiar. While the average film would film out of order based on convenience of settings, The Life of Emile Zola was filmed in reverse order. This was done so that Muni could film his role in a more convenient fashion. This included trimming and darkening his beard as Zola grew younger. By the time that Zola was a young man, it was reported that Muni would spend 3.5 hours in make-up every day. Muni was also willing to go above and beyond, studying the works of Zola exhaustively. In the film's most iconic scene where Muni gives a six minute monologue, he was immediately met with a standing ovation from the cast and crew upon completion of the scene. 

The film was a hit in every sense of the word. It managed to become the first film to garner a whopping 10 Oscar nominations. It was also one of the first ceremonies to be postponed thanks to a severe flooding in Los Angeles that set the ceremony back a whole week. It was a rather big year for the Oscars, including the first ever Best Picture nominee that was in color (director William A. Wellman's A Star is Born). This was also the year where The Marx Brothers received their only Oscar nomination for Best Dance Direction with A Day at the Races (the category would be discontinued the following year). The Life of Emile Zola also became the second biopic to win Best Picture after The Great Ziegfeld. These two films also hold the honor of being the only two films to win the category and feature the letter 'z'. 

The work on display in The Life of Emile Zola can be boiled down to performance. The film is memorable because of Muni's charisma. It was an example of a biopic focusing on a man who stood for justice and sought change in society. While the film's reputation has diminished due to its otherwise unmemorable production, it remains one of the predecessors to the conventional biopic that populates every Best Picture year. For all of the fantastic lives that are depicted on film, Muni was there first giving monologues with vigor. He made you care. While the film's general attitudes towards Jewish culture remains problematic, it isn't too distracting in the film. As the 10th film to win Best Picture, it set a bar that real lives can be just as impressive as fiction.

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