Best Picture Winners #10 – The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

From the United States across the ocean to France.

That’s where 1937’s Best Picture winner takes us. Not only to France, but back in time to the late 1800s. In 1936, we learned all about the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld and his troupe the Ziegfeld Follies. This time, in 1937, we get to learn more about the great French writer Emile Zola. In other words, this is a biopic, though after watching this movie, I would use that description in a very loose sense.

But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

I was immediately interested in watching this movie. See, I was a French major in college. So I got to hear a LOT about Emile Zola. We never read one of his books, but I heard a lot about him. I knew that he was a popular French writer in the late 1800s who wrote a lot about prostitutes and other lower-class people as a way to expose the harsh lives they led. Because he didn’t write about happy subjects, he often caused scandals with his writings.

I had also vaguely heard about something called the Dreyfus affair, which he somehow became embroiled in. But that was the extent of my knowledge.

Oh and his famous article called J’accuse. I knew about that.

But that was it.

After watching The Great Ziegfeld, I was happy to see that the running time for this movie was a nice one hour and fifty-something minutes. Woohoo, a shorter movie! So I sat down with my latest crochet project (a beautiful sweater, my first one!) and put on this movie.

Most biopics start at the beginning of the subject’s life. However, this one begins in 1862, when Zola is into his thirties and living in a drafty attic in Paris with his friend Paul Cézanne (a famous French painter; another person I learned a lot about in French class!). They’re trying to make ends meet, Paul with his painting and Zola with trying to work on his writing. Then a chance encounter with a prostitute hiding from a police raid in a Parisian café where Zola and Cézanne are having a meal inspires his first major writing project, a book called Nana. Zola’s book causes quite the scandal, since his subject is a down-and-out prostitute rather than someone of a higher social class. He is even fired from his day job for it, but fortunately, he doesn’t need to go back to the regular 9-to-5 (or what they would say in French, métro boulot dodo [metro, work, sleep]) life anyway. He becomes a prolific writer, pumping out tons of books, all of them about lower-class people. When asked about why he chose those subjects, he explains that he wants to expose the truth about their lives.

All of this takes place within the first half hour of the movie. We rush through the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, all of his books being published and selling like petit pains (little breads), his marriage to a woman named Alexandrine, buying up a mansion and starting a family, and living comfortably on his wealth. He even encounters his old friend Cézanne again, who hasn’t found much success and who even admonishes our hero that Zola has become too complacent, unlike the zealous reformer he was when he was younger and they were living in that drafty apartment.

Then along comes the major part of this movie: the famous Dreyfus affair. The long and short of that scandal is this: the French army realizes there’s a spy amongst them giving information to the Germans. And without any thought or evidence, the officers accuse a general named Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, of being the spy. There is absolutely no proof that Dreyfus is the spy, but they take that opportunity to court-martial Dreyfus and imprison him in French Guyana for being a traitor the French state.

Colonel Picquart, one of the higher-ups in the French army, finds out who the real spy is, but he’s told to keep quiet. And to get him out of the way, they send him to one of their African outposts. Meanwhile, poor Dreyfus is sitting away in a locked cell in South America, completely innocent.

The case is closed, but Mrs. Dreyfus knows that her husband is innocent. And she comes a-knocking on Zola’s door to ask for help, with clear evidence of her husband’s innocence. Zola is reluctant to give up his comfortable life, but decides to help her.

The Dreyfus affair is where the movie spends most of its time: Zola’s famous J’accuse letter, where he accuses the army officials of covering up the scandal; Zola being brought to trial for libel; Zola fleeing to England to continue his campaign to clear Dreyfus; a new administration finally admitting that they were wrong and all of the perpetrators either fleeing or committing suicide. And of course, since this is a biopic, the movie’s end comes when Emile Zola dies of carbon monoxide poisoning right before Dreyfus is brought home and exonerated. (As a side note, some believe Zola was murdered, which wouldn’t surprise me given that he made a lot of political enemies in trying to help Dreyfus. However, it’s so long ago that it’s hard to know if it was murder or not.)

Overall, I found this movie very intriguing. But I knew that I would be. It has to do with French history, and I’m automatically biased toward French things anyway! However, putting away my French biases, I have to say that because this movie spends so much of its time in the Dreyfus affair, I’m not sure that the title, The Life of Emile Zola, is really the best one for this movie. We start halfway through his life and most of the movie is about his involvement in a political scandal. Maybe something like Zola and Dreyfus would have been better. Since I knew this was a biopic, I was expecting something to talk about his early life too, but that didn’t happen.

That was perhaps the only major beef that I had with this movie. Otherwise, it was well-done and certainly better paced than the previous movie! So if you’re interested in finding out about a major scandal in French history and the people behind it, I would recommend this film. It certainly kept me interested all throughout!

Four out of five stars

Next time: Our second “aside” for this project, and my second Errol Flynn movie ever: The Adventures of Robin Hood, which was nominated for Best Picture in 1937 but didn’t win. And since this is a favorite of Andrew’s from when he was a child, and I’ve never seen it, we’ve added it to our list!