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The Story Of Emile Zola

25 Nov

The Life Of Emile Zola – directed by William Dieterle. Biopic. 219 minutes Black And White 1937.

★★★

The Story: A famous writer mounts a polemic against the injustice of a Jewish Army officer falsely accused of treason.

~

The word Jew is never mentioned. But it is seen written down on a list. From this we are able to deduce that Dreyfus was scapegoated to Devil’s Island for years – for his taste in  neckties perhaps?

Idiotic. And forced. Forced into silence by the Hollywood style of the era, which ten years later would produce Gentleman’s Agreement, which the Jewish moguls in Hollywood begged Daryl Zanuck not to film. Zanuck had been turned down at a Hollywood country club because he was Jewish; he wanted vindication; he filmed it anyhow. And he wasn’t Jewish at all.

Here we have the same cowardly, goody-idealism and naiveté of approach. Here everyone is wide-eyed and jejune, everyone’s eyeballs stuffed with white bread. In contrast to this, the execution of the material is coarse, one big bang scene following upon the one before, like a rhino in a puce tutu jetéeing en pointe from one Alp to the next. This is the Warner’s bio-style of the ‘30s. To call it crude would minimize its delicacy.

The piece is overwritten wherever it can manage, and the actors tend to fall into the trap of that, which is to say, they emotionalize. You have to watch Henry O’Neill and Harry Davenport neatly underplay their parts to appreciate the peril of such a script. As Cezanne, Vladimir Sokoloff himself barely escapes with his life, but has a lovely reading of his exit line when Zola asks for him to stay as a reminder of the old days: “You can never return to them, and I never left them.” Gale Sondergaard, with her poisonous smile, can’t help herself but emote, although she has one lovely moment in court, and even the magnificent Louis Calhern has trouble keeping his corset on. The script writers should be spanked.

The problem is that the script is mostly exposition and narrative. Because it jams in Zola’s life from age 22 to his accidental death forty years later, the dramatic scenes are foreshortened and perforce glib. In playing scenes that are purely expository or narrative, an actor’s temptation is to goose them up with emotion to provide them with human interest, but the emotion involved is generally ungrounded or generalized or forced, and the humanity resulting becomes spurious. The audience has to sit through this pretension in order to endure The Story Of Emile Zola. It’s a story that has it’s value, to be sure, and, although I don’t know from the placard which opens the film how factual the screenplay is, there is certainly a general inauthenticity in the enacting of it.

Muni took it on just after his Louis Pasteur, for which he had won The Oscar. It had the allure for him of playing another good guy, a hero of history, someone to admire, a ”moment in the conscious of mankind”. After playing parts like Scarface, Muni may have come up against the problem Cagney had after playing public enemy number one – the frustration inherent to be always shooting men and slapping women. For Muni, Zola’s story might prove another perfect antidote – on the surface of it: Emile Zola! What a mensch!

However, the question one must ask of a performance is: is this a credible human being?

Here, for me, the answer is no.

Jerome Lawrence in his book on Muni recounts Muni’s preparation for the role: how he researched Zola’s gesture, his pince-nez, his tummy-tapping, his ancestry. Muni was a great master of stage makeup so Muni prepared the makeup for the part four months in advance. He grew his beard and hair to the length they would be at the end of the film; the beard would be shortened as he youthened to 22. Thus the film had to be shot backwards. The Westmores, the makeup and wig family at Warners, met with him and photographed Muni over and over to perfect the makeup for each of his four ages.

All of this is interesting, but all of it is surface. Muni made his living in the Yiddish theatre playing old men from the time he was a teenager to age 33, so he was a master of stage whiskers. And I notice as I watch that I am more interested in the whiskers on him than I am interested in Zola himself. Actually, I thought the whiskers were pretty good, but false.

In fact, I believe the whiskers may have sabotaged the performance, for obliging Muni, at 42, to start filming Zola at 62 may have tricked him into believing that acting-for-age was called for to distinguish him at that age from his younger versions still to be filmed, so Muni makes him somewhat doddering. A sort of foolish, fond old man, and cuddly. The result is that I never believe there is a real person there, but only A Noble Personage-who- is-sometimes-rather-dear.

If you consider the texture of the performance, you can see that Muni’s craft as an actor leads him often to a specious and superfluous craftiness. He seldom fails to overdo. He seldom keeps it simple. His idea is to entertain us with his acting and for us to like him. His performance might work all right on a New York stage. But here, inside it all, I do not detect a recognizable human being. Opposite him, as a corrective, Joseph Schildkraut must underplay even his own shouting. Muni did not win the Oscar for this. Schildkraut won it.

One wonders why. A put-upon Jew? If so, the award supplies an irony to the anti-Semitism which the movie timorously avoids.

Why see this film? A number of reasons: To Have Seen It. To experience the very interesting oddity of a French courtroom of the 1890s. To consider the whiskers the many male actors wear, for it must have taken the makeup people three years every morning to get these men into their muttonchops and mustaches. And to see Muni deliver what William Dieterle called an uncut, six-and-a-half minute tablecloth speech in the courtroom at the end, which he does simply and well.

The film was highly praised by critics. Why? Zola was the Bernstein and Woodward of his day, a whistleblower for all time, and like Zola, the reviewers too were journalists. Muni won the New York Film Critic’s award for this one, and the film won the Oscar for best picture of the year. Also for best screenplay.

Oscar Wilde knew both Dreyfus and Esterhazy. Esterhazy, the real traitor, Wilde found to be charming, Dreyfus dull. “It is always wrong to be innocent,” was his conclusion, and in this, as in all things Wilde was not wrong.

 
 
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