The Best Picture Winners: The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

| September 27, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I am not that far from most people in the long list of grievances that I have with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, especially with regards to some of the decisions that they’ve made concerning Best Picture.  Very near the top of that list is the choice NOT to grant Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a nomination for Best Picture.  Instead, Walt Disney’s monumental achievement was given a special award – an honorable mention, really – in which The Academy deemed the film as “recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field.”  How is that not a fancy rewording of Best Picture?

The film selected as 1937’s Best Picture is not exactly a game changer.  In fact, it has more or less slipped out of knowledge.  The Life of Emile Zola wants to be a soup to nuts retelling of the life and times of the titular French novelist, journalist and playwright from his early days living in poverty with his roommate Paul Cezanne (yes . . . that Paul Cezanne) to his tragic death of asphyxiation at the age of 62.

Oddly enough, the movie isn’t really about the life of Emile Zola.  Much of the story involves the struggle to free an accused French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus (in real life, allegedly a distant relative of Richard) who has been railroaded to prison on a trumped up charge of treason.  The movie briefly hints that he was set-up because he was Jewish, so I am left to wonder why that idea wasn’t brought to the forefront.  The only hint of anti-semitism is a quick glance at his record in which the camera zooms in on the work ‘Jewish'”  Why point that out and then drop it completely from the plot?

Anyway, Zola – whose politically charged novels have made him a concern to the French government – is determined to see justice done.

I loved The Life of Emile Zola as a teenager but watching it again recently, I realize that time has not been kind.  Paul Muni plays Zola on much same note (and under similar circumstances) that he played Louis Pasteur in his Oscar winning role the previous year but the movie is somewhat flat.  It waves the flag of justice but is afraid of pushing any real buttons.  Thank you for the history lesson, but for 1937 I’ll stick with the magic mirror on the wall.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.