Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle
Cast: Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Vladimir Sokoloff, Henry O’Neill
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, A Star is Born

As the film opens a legal statement appears on screen telling us that this is a fictional story and that the persons and events portrayed here are not based on actual people and events. This confuses me because from the brief research I have done the majority of events portrayed do appear to have happened in the life of Emile Zola. Of course I am accepting that some artistic license was employed when making the film but, at the risk of revealing some elements of the story to you, the following can certainly be said to be true:

- Emile Zola was a childhood friend of the artist Paul Cezanne and the two did live together in Paris.
- Zola was threatened by the police regarding the sordid nature of his books.
- He did go on to become one of the highest paid artists in Paris and had a falling out with Cezanne who believed that “artists should remain poor”.
- He did get directly involved in the Dreyfus Affair, coming to publically support a man wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, and to brazenly accuse the highest level of the French Army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism.
- He was brought to trial on the grounds of criminal libel, convicted and sentenced to one year in prison and removed from the Legion of Honor.

So I am not sure where it is that the movie strays so wildly from reality but perhaps the legal warning is just there as a precaution.

Paul Muni is the actor who portrays Emile Zola from his penniless days in a frozen attic shared with Cezanne, through his lethargic wealthy days when his political beliefs were assuaged by comfort and food, to his rebirth as an activist with his defense against a great injustice.

The injustice in question is the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that divided the French people in the 1890’s. Alfred Dreyfus was a young French officer who was wrongly convicted of smuggling military secrets to the German embassy and sentenced to life imprisonment. Two years into his sentence evidence is found that identifies a second officer, one Ferdinand Esterhazy, as the culprit and points to Dreyfus’ innocence. But unable to accept that the administration made an error the high ranking officials in the army hide the evidence and acquitted Esterhazy, leaving Dreyfus to rot in prison.

When the evidence found its way to Emile Zola he abandons his wealthy lifestyle and his activism is re-ignited. He famously prints a scathing attack on the army on a local newspaper entitled “I accuse”. Thus begins his personal quest to free Dreyfus and right this wrong. He states that:

Not only is an innocent man crying out for justice, but more, much more… a great nation is in desperate danger of forfeiting her honor!

The courtroom scenes are by far the most riveting of the movie with the administration clearly pulling out all stops to cover up its crime. There is perhaps the first great example of a courtroom speech being made by Emile at the end of the farcical proceedings when he states that he has accomplished his mission simply by appearing in court for even if he is found guilty “what does it matter if an individual is shattered - if only justice is resurrected?”

This is a heroic story of a man who forsakes his wealth and success in the name of truth. To Zola truth is a powerful force and once it is “on the march… nothing shall stop it.” I think it is a very worthwhile watch, especially if you are interested in French history or in Parisian culture.

Paul C├ęzanne. Paul Alexis Reading to Emile Zola. c. 1869-70. Oil on canvas. Museu de Arte de Sao Paolo Assis Chateaubriand, Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Next Up: You Can't Take It with You

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Cast: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan
Genre: Drama
Other Nominees: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Fransisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls

Shame on me! Any hesitation you may have noticed in me continuing my journey through cinematic history was due to the fact that I was simply not excited to see this film. Two reasons prevented me from starting, one was the subject matter of a Broadway musical maker’s life, and the second was the runtime of 3+ hours, neither of which sounded appealing to me. And yet while this film would undoubtedly not be for everyone I found it to be a surprisingly rewarding experience.

The Great Ziegfeld tells of the career of one Florenz Ziegfeld, a Broadway impresario, and of his rise and fall as he creates his masterpieces of stage. But it is really two films in one.

The first film is a reproduction of some numbers from Ziegfeld’s shows which can be found scattered throughout the movie. As the tagline for the movie suggests we can see “10 Big Shows In 1” as we make our way though The Great Ziegfeld. I think these are the scenes that some modern viewers will find themselves struggling through as most of the numbers are lengthy. But it must be said that I what I took away from them was the distinct impression of Ziegfeld as nothing short of a revolutionary, someone willing to push the envelope of what can be achieved on stage. The extravagance and style that was on display and the astounding set pieces were extremely impressive.

The second film lives between these fabulous acts and tells the story of the man Florenz Ziegfeld and in particular of his relationships with women, and for me it is the far more interesting of the two. Florenz “glorified the American girl” in his shows and the women he was involved with found themselves in constant competition with the many beautiful women he was surrounded by. The film is really an exploration of how a man obsessed with the beauty of women deals with the women he loves and lives with. This conflict is seen in earnest when his marriage with his first wife, Anna Held deteriorates under the pressure.

Asides from Florenz being a lady’s man if there was another aspect of the man that I can take away from this movie it is his devotion to the entertainment of the public at any cost. Mr. Ziegfeld did not die a rich man and although he lived a rich lifestyle on borrowed money he lost the modern equivalent of millions in the production of his shows. Ziegfeld himself put it best on his deathbed in this movie when he whispers that he only wanted to “add more stairs and get higher”.

I will leave you with a recurring thought I had throughout the film. I could not stop thinking about the fact that this film was produced less than 10 years after Ziegfeld’s death. Ziegfeld died in 1932 and 4 years later his life is on screen and winning the best picture award. In modern day we may not all know his name but his influence on the times can be seen most clearly in this fact alone. I imagine that he would have preferred a stage version of his life but I do think that to be recognized in an award winning film so soon after one passes is an amazing compliment.

Next Up: The Life of Emile Zola