By 1935, Hollywood was no stranger to the biopic. Major films of the both the silent and sound era that focused on the lives of major historical figures include Napoléon (1927), The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), and Cleopatra (1934). However, other than Charles Laughton’s Best Actor award for his portrayal of Henry VIII, the Academy was largely indifferent to biographical films, preferring to focus on “original” stories. That attitude changed in 1935 when Paul Muni won Best Actor for his work in The Story of Louis Pasteur, and The Great Ziegfeld took home the award for Outstanding Production. This trend would continue the following year with The Life of Emile Zola winning the top honor. The actor in the lead role as Zola? Paul Muni (who lost to Spencer Tracy). Though both films are competent and still watchable, they do have issues that voters apparently overlooked.
The Great Ziegfeld focuses on the life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., a major theatrical innovator who made a fortune on Broadway with his Ziegfeld Follies. He is credited with discovering Ray Bolger of Wizard of Oz fame, and Fanny Brice, who would later be immortalized by Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. The film follows Ziegfeld from his lowly days as a carnival barker at the World’s Fair through his success and finally his financial ruin. The film also traces the love life of Ziegfeld through his courtships and marriages to Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Throughout the film are numerous over-the-top musical numbers that capture the wonder, glamour, and excess of the original Follies. These numbers pushed the production cost of the film to over two million dollars, which was pretty pricey for 1935.
Though the musical numbers are gorgeous, they eventually become tedious. The film is nearly three hours long and feels every bit of it. The first half of the film is far better than the second. In fact, if the film had actually ended at intermission with the famous “Wedding Cake” production, it would hold up much better than it does. However, the second half of the film bogs down the story with more production numbers and less character development. The cameos by the real Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger are wasted and seemed tacked on. These could have been a chance to both showcase the talent of these individuals and to develop the story. However, they are simply throw away scenes included solely for the purpose of marketing the film by billing the two stars as having larger roles than they actually do. The real star of the film is Luise Rainer, who won Best Actress. This was the first of two in a row for Rainer, who would also win for her role as O-Lan in The Good Earth. All in all, the film is a letdown. Watch the first half and then skip to the end.
The Life of Emile Zola suffers from a different kind of problem. Where Ziegfeld expands too much, Zola conflates too much. The film comes in under two hours, but in the first twenty minutes, Zola goes from a starving novelist sharing a room with Paul Cézanne to a best-selling writer with Nana, the story of a street prostitute who becomes a high-class escort. The novel was an early work of literary naturalism and an exposé of the less-than-favorable conditions of life in Paris in the mid-19th century. All of this really did happen. However, in the film, Nana is presented as one of Zola’s early works and his first bestseller. In reality, Nana was Zola’s eighteenth novel (he had additional short stories and novellas published as well). It is also the eleventh installment of his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. So, the audience doesn’t really see the rise of Zola.
The film then quickly jumps to Zola as a wealthy, established writer who has largely turned his back on the unfortunate souls he used to champion and on whom he based the majority of his writings. The conflict arises when he is drawn into the infamous Dreyfus Affair. In short, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French-Jewish artillery officer, was falsely accused, court-martialed, and imprisoned for treason for selling secrets to Germany. Dreyfus was a victim of a wave of anti-Semitism that was present in Europe at the time. The conviction of Dreyfus prompted Zola to write his famous “J’accuse …!”, which was printed as an editorial on the front page of the French newspaper L’Aurore. The letter caused an uproar, with Zola fearing for his life, facing trial, and finally being hailed as a champion of the people.
The latter half of the film focuses on the Dreyfus Affair and its fallout. Though Muni as Zola gives an impassioned speech that was progressive for its time, the film itself exhibits some of the very anti-Semitism its lead character is challenging. The film never uses the word “Jew” or mentions anti-Semitism or even the rise of Nazism that was taking place. While the film is powerful and wonderfully acted (Muni was nominated and Joseph Schildkraut won a well-deserved Supporting Actor as Dreyfuss), it comes up short by catering to the prevailing politics of the time. Also, it fails as a true life of Zola by presenting only a glimpse of the great writer during one important moment of his life. In fact, the film would have been better as a straight-forward telling of the Dreyfus Affair with Zola as a major player. Instead, we end up with a film that does neither Dreyfus nor Zola the justice they deserve.
Next time, Hollywood adapts two Pulitzer Prize winners and gives us the first great, truly epic motion picture.