Oscar Best Picture Winner 1938: The Life of Emile Zola

The concept of writing stories and films about writers has been played with and worked on for years. I have always found writers to be extremely interesting characters, adding a unique element to any film. As with all film concepts there have been good attempts and terrible attempts at creating films based around the minds of writers. The life of Emile Zola, the 1938 Best Picture winner, is a great example of a well done film about writers.

As the film’s title suggests, this film is about the life of struggling author Emile Zola (Paul Muni). The film opens with Emile living in a rundown apartment with his friend Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), worried about making his rent. Emile tries to make a living writing, publishing what was considered to be scandalous material though it was steeped in truth. Refusing to sway to the masses and write something he did not believe in, Emile’s reputation made him undesirable as an employee. Emile’s big break arrives when he meets a street prostitute named Nana (Erin O’Brien Moore) and is inspired to write a book of the same name. Selling like wildfire, Emile continues to write for years, amassing wealth and reputation with each new book. Writing to try and fix the injustice of the world, Emile has no problem calling out and pissing off organizations, states or even countries. Emile writes for years until he is comfortable. Only then does he begin to slow down with his wealth and life.

Meanwhile the French Army is in the middle of a scandal as they believe they have found a traitor. The man accused is Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) and he is sentenced to life in prison though he insists he is innocent. The military eventually realizes they have the wrong man and that Dreyfus actually is innocent. Unwilling to look bad in the public eye, Colonel Piquart (Henry O’Neill) decides to cover-up the mistake and keep Dreyfus in jail. After years of being wrongfully incarcerated, Dreyfus’ wife Lucie Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) realizes her husband is truly innocent and desperately tries to get him free. Lucie enlists the help of Zola, who at this point in time is retired. Realizing that he has gotten complacent in his old age, Zola decides to once again try and make a difference in the world with his words and writing. As he begins to speak out against the military, his country which previously supported his radical ideas turns on him, labeling him as bad a traitor as Dreyfus. Refusing to back down until justice is upheld, Zola fights for Dreyfus’ freedom.

My favorite aspect of this film was the main character, Emile Zola. I found him to be a very interesting character. A man who started out poor and wanting, unwilling to sacrifice his principals for money or success, as his fame grew Zola did not allow it to change him. He continued to advocate for truth and justice through his books. Even when he grew old, though he got a little complacent, Zola stayed true to himself and his nature, rising to the occasion that was presented to him. I found Zola to be a truly genius character.

The Life Of Emile Zola was another film that I thought I was going to hate and ended up really liking. I thought the film was a little bit long. Some of the scenes could have been tightened up a little bit. I thought Zola was a tremendous character and would assume that this, considering the film’s material, was a somewhat controversial film when it was released. Though it had the content to be controversial, the film beat out a long list of contenders to win the 1938 Oscar Best Picture including The Awful Truth, In Old Chicago, Stage Door, Captains Courageous, Lost Horizon, A Star is Born, Dead End, the Good Earth and One Hundred Men and a Girl. The film also gave Joseph Schildkraut a win for Best Supporting Actor and also won Best Writing. I give this film a 8 out of 10, another film that took me pleasantly by surprise.

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