The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

  • Posted on: 4 July 2016
  • By: Noah Brand

This is what you call surefire Oscar bait: a period biopic that talks about an Important Social Issue. The Life of Emile Zola is a weirdly-paced story with a strange two-part structure. First, we have your conventional biopic. Zola starts out penniless and living in a garret, but perseveres and works hard and finds success with Nana, because it turns out sex sells. He raises a family, yadda yadda yadda, and his career and the film are both slowing down by the halfway mark.

Then we get to the Dreyfus Affair, which (per this movie, anyway) was a forgotten event until Zola decided it was time to rake some muck. The movie shifts into an entirely different gear as it addresses this episode in Zola’s life. He singlehandedly takes on the French government and gets an innocent man freed through the power of the press, because (drumroll please, moral approaching) ANTI-SEMITISM IS BAD.

That point is, I’m 90% sure, why this decent-but-forgettable biopic won Best Picture. Lest that sound like I’m criticizing the Academy’s decision as being a smug pat on its own back for taking an easy stand, let’s remember that this award was given in early 1938. 1938 was a year when standing up against anti-semitism was getting people actively killed, and I can’t imagine that any voting members were unaware of that fact. It's not taking an easy stand when people want to shoot you for it.

 

What did this beat?

The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, and A Star Is Born. It’s an interesting lineup, given that a majority of these films are terrific, considered classics, and better-remembered than The Life of Emile Zola. Personally, I’d have been tempted to give it to Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, for which I have an enormous soft spot. Stage Door, which I also enjoyed, is unfortunately best known for George Kaufman’s complaint about it: he said the studio changed so much from his original play that they ought to have called it Screen Door.