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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 21 March 2011 00:00|
The tenth annual Academy Awards ceremony was scheduled to take place on Thursday, March 3, 1938; however, torrential downpours led to flooding across Los Angeles, and the last minute cancellation of what would have been a rather soggy ceremony. When the event finally took place, a full week later, only a handful of stars bothered to show up, and even host George Jessel called in sick.
Despite the poor attendance, the ceremony marked a momentous change in the history of the Oscars: for the first time, the Screen Actor's Guild's 12,000 members were allowed to vote. While the right would be revoked eight years later, it nonetheless marked a turning point in the history of the awards with power shifting away from the studios heads and executives that had originally established the Academy and toward the more common folk and artists working to create the films themselves.
Perhaps it should not be a surprise, then, that the Best Picture winner that year was a film about a common man and artist standing up to a corrupt and elite ruling class.
Directed by German-born William Dieterle, the biopic The Life of Emile Zola was the first film to receive 10 Academy Award nominations. It took home three Oscars, wining best Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut) and Adapted Screenplay, along with Best Picture -- a first for the Warner Brothers studio.
Emile Zola was a late nineteenth century Parisian writer who pioneered the genre of French naturalism and was known as a liberal thinker and cultural icon. The film's title is somewhat misleading, in that the movie's unique structure actually includes portions in which Zola is completely absent from the narrative.
The movie begins in traditional biopic style, depicting a young Zola looking to develop his artistic voice and scrapping by in the usual starving artist style. After meeting a prostitute named Nana, Zola is inspired to base a novel on her life. Nana becomes a huge hit, despite (or perhaps because of) its lascivious subject matter, and Zola is soon a star. Then, in one quick montage, the film depicts the writer publishing book after book, and we suddenly cut to him as a successful man in his sixties, ready to shed the radicalism of his youth. He readily admits the fight has gone out of him, and he is looking for a simple, comfortable life. All this in the first half hour of the film!
The movie then takes a major shift, and the narrative turns to the story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army officer in the French military who is wrongfully accused of espionage after some quick racial profiling. Dreyfus is found guilty and sent to prison. Years go by, and, even when the true traitor is discovered, Dreyfus' innocence is covered up to prevent the military from looking fallible.
Zola is almost completely absent from this portion of the film. It is only when Alfred Dreyfus's wife visits him to ask for his assistance in proving her husband's innocence that Zola re-enters the story. Mrs. Dreyfus recognizes Zola as "a man who stood for truth and justice all his life," but she finds the writer resistant to her pleas. He argues, "I've lived my life. I've had enough of fighting, turmoil, and strife. I'm happy here."
Yet, as he considers the injustice being perpetrated against his fellow citizen, the writer's deep respect for truth and justice cannot allow him to turn a blind eye. He decides to publish a (legendary) article publicly accusing the French army of corruption and conspiracy. As a result, Zola is charged with liable, and his books are burned in the streets.
The film then becomes a courtroom drama following the liable case. The courtroom scenes build to a climatic speech from Zola himself, which is likely the moment that earned performer Paul Muni his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. In a line that captures theme of the film, Zola tells the jury, "All my friends have told me that it was insane for a single person to oppose the immense machinery of the law, the glory of the army, and the power of the state." And in that line, the name of the film becomes appropriate after all, because while the majority of the narrative focuses on a single event in Zola's life (the trial), that event encapsulates everything he dedicated himself to as an artist forever willing to speak truth in the face of power.
The Life of Emile Zola is a moving and engaging film, and its success rests largely on the performances of its actors. Schildkraut turns in an Oscar-winning performance as Dreyfus, and Muni is spectacular as Zola. At no point is the viewer ever reminded that Zola is not a sixty year-old writer but rather a young actor in startlingly effective age make-up.
Near the end of the film, Zola proclaims, "The world must be conquered, not by force of arms, but by ideas that liberate. Then can we build it anew; build it for the humble and the wretched." That line, not to mention the film's narrative about a prosecuted Jew, likely had significant resonance at the time of its release.
We cannot forget that The Life of Emile Zola was released on October 7, 1937. A month later, at a secret meeting in the German Reich Chancellery, Adolf Hitler would outline his newly radicalized expansionist policies.
By the 10th Academy Awards ceremony, the Great Depression, which has served as the backdrop for so many of the first decade of Best Picture winners, had begun to fade, replaced by a new cultural context in which Hollywood would be producing its films for the following decade: the shadow of WWII.
Next: The dynamic duo of Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart collaborate (for the first time) on an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning hit Broadway play You Can't Take it With You.
Oscar FirstsFor More Info:
The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar by Gail Kinn Jim Piazza, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing Inc.
Previously in The Oscars Project:
Tags: anarchy, biopic, cinema, courtroom drama, oscars project, the life of emile zola, truth justice and the parisian way