The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Is this one of the lesser-known Best Picture Oscar winners? These days I suspect it is, if only by virtue of its age, but it’s still not a film I seem to read about much for some reason. It was up against some solid competition (evidently not one of those Oscar years where there’s only one obvious winner) and was the first film to get 10 nominations at the Oscars too, so it deserves at least the historical recognition. Plus it was apparently Warners’ first Best Picture winner too, and the Warner connection is interesting when considering the subject matter. In spite of the title, the film’s primary focus is really the Dreyfus affair, which, to be sure, was a significant part of Zola’s life… in the lead-up to same we get a somewhat hasty portrait of the artist as a young muckraker as a prelude to the comfortable bourgeois complacency out of which he has to be shocked by the Dreyfus business; it’s when that heats up that the film starts to take flight. How interesting, though, that the film never utters the word “Jew” outright, when anti-Semitism was a major part of what drove the Dreyfus affair in the first place; the only explicit reference is when the general staff are looking at his record and we see the word written down then. Which makes me wonder, given what we know about Warner’s attempts to expose Nazi Germany during this time, if this was their way of working around the Hays office’s nay-saying, trying to draw some sort of (admittedly muted) parallel between what Jew-hating was doing in Germany at that time and what it had done in France only four decades earlier. Can’t find anything (yet) to support that reading, but it’s what I took away from the film. Don’t know that it was the best picture of 1937, but I can understand how it did win.


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