The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The immediate issue with this film is that its title is notoriously misleading.  The Life of Emile Zola is hardly Zola’s life story, it is about the circumstance that would lead this man to rediscover what it is that makes his life worth living.  It may take a while to build, but once it has it is truly on form.

The story begins when Zola is young, skinny and beardless.  Starving, he manages to make some money from his writing and in a short space of time – perhaps a little too short – he matures into an older man, significantly bearded and notably fatter.  Zola then finds himself embroiled in the Dreyfus affair, a plot of political intrigue where an innocent man is framed for being a spy.  Roused by the spectre of the loss of freedom, Zola rediscovers the passion that keeps him writing and sets about freeing Dreyfus from his island prison.

One of the key problems with The Life of Emile Zola is that the exposition portion of the film only meekly conveys the film’s ultimate intention.  Zola grows old much too quickly for us to be particularly stirred by his complacency in later life, and we more see a change in Zola than we do feel this change.  The Middle-Age of Emile Zola would perhaps have been a better title?

Which brings me to another issue – how is it possible for us to be interested in Zola when he’s just sitting around getting fat?  It’s really not a very good set-up.  Other than his rousing courtroom speech, the only remotely interesting thing Zola does in the whole film is go down to the fish market and buy a lobster!  Then the Dreyfus affair comes out of nowhere about half an hour into the film.  Surely they could have sewn the seeds of the dramatic heart of the story a little sooner.  For that matter, why not just call the film The Dreyfus Affair and make that the focus instead of trying to make a protagonist out of a man on the outskirts of the story who takes very little direct action?  In terms of dramatic posturing I’m struggling to be convinced.

So here I am seemingly ripping the film to shreds, but I actually loved it.  While there are problems with structure, as a whole this film is superb.  The artistic direction is astonishing for it’s subtlety.  For instance, the rigidity of the French army is expressed through clean, straight lines, with nothing intersecting the character’s faces.  This is juxtaposed against Zola and his home, which contain many curves and flambuoyant circles.  When Zola is present, the picture makes it feel like his energy is spilling out around him.  Rather than the showy but ultimately empty aesthetic presented to us in The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola offers us a screen image crafted with subtely beautiful expression.

And importantly, the film has some moments of strikingly absolute humanity.  The scene where Dreyfus is freed from his cell is both joyous and heartbreaking, and Paul Muni’s depiction of Zola is laced with skill and charisma.  Muni must demonstrate a broad age range in the film, and as with all of these classics the make-up, costume and acting faciliate the aging process very convincingly.

The Life of Emile Zola well deserves it’s place in the Academy Award canon, with it’s mastery of visual image and it’s compelling human drama.  But as with Cimarron, I feel like this film is from an era which is, in hindsight, still getting the hang of things.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Brechtian epic is defined by the length and breadth of it’s story, and though The Great Ziegfeld chronicles almost the whole life of Florenz Ziegfeld Jnr I finished the film without feeling like I had learned a hell of a lot. All that’s really sticking are the pretty girls and the amazing sets. The aesthetic is gorgeous, but the film doesn’t really move far beyond that.

Consider The Great Ziegfeld a sooped-up version of The Broadway Melody. If The Broadway Melody was a teenager, experimenting with new-found freedoms and making it’s mistakes, then The Great Ziegfeld is in the prime of young adulthood – experienced, confident and sure of what it wants. Massive songs and dances immaculately choreographed, incredible sets and jaw-dropping costumes define The Great Ziegfeld. The film takes all of the technological advances of the era and combines them with superb showmanship, and boy does it feel expensive!

Like it’s gentleman subject, The Great Ziegfeld sells itself to the audience through dazzle and magnificence. Giant revovling sets with literally over 100 performers, huge dance numbers and bizarre dinner dresses on parade make this film a spectacle right to the core. What makes it work is that after about an hour and a half, The Great Ziegfeld stops lying to itself about what it wants to be and gives us forty minutes straight of showy song and dance numbers. When you’re comitted, you’re convincing, and when The Great Ziegfeld sells what it sets out to, it doesn’t mess you around.

But the potential problem; what is this film other than glossy aesthetic? Louise Rainer definantly earns her Best Actress award for her portait of the breathless French primadonna, but other than that…there’s not a hell of a lot here. Still, there’s nothing wrong with showiness other than one’s pesonal taste, and The Great Ziegfeld suits me just fine.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Clarke Gable returns in this monumental piece of cinema which depicts the crew of The Bounty mutinying against their tyrannous captain, Bligh.

At the film’s outset, title cards inform us that the crew of The Bounty, which is about to leave port, will mutiny against their captain and begin life anew in the Pacific.  Like the idea of ‘the epic’, this is another old Brechtian technique, where by knowing the ending already we are invited to observe not the ‘what’, but the ‘how’ and the ‘why’.

Analysing how the mutiny unfolds, it’s apparent that the ship’s captain, Bligh (played with superb skill and dominating charisma by Charles Laughton), is a monster.  We observe him lashing dead bodies and keelhauling for a minor offence.  I understand that these events are not historically accurate, but this doesn’t really matter to me as the statement on humanity is much more potent than is keeping events historically correct.

I believe this film can be read as a statement on power, control and freedom.  Michel Foucault, a famous French philosopher, describes in one of his seminal works, Discipline and Punish, how authority in the eighteenth century asserts control of it’s subjects through the public display of power over bodies.  By publicly lashing a dead man before the ship sets sail, Bligh’s power manifests itself in the minds of the sailors and they come to willingly relinquish control of their own bodies, becoming virtual slaves to the ship.

Manuel Castells isolates and defines power as the ability to perform violence against another.  At mutiny itself Clarke Gable’s character, Fletcher Christian, leads a rebellion against Bligh after conditions become intolerable (a sailor is killed, and the threat to life becomes more dangerous than the threat of harm to the body).  The power shift is established through Christian’s assertion of physical domination over Bligh – the most physically threatening entity becomes the one in control.

All of this is very interesting I am sure, but what is the message here?  There is a strong topical link between Mutiny on the Bounty and the fantastic Cavalcade, each of which was directed by Frank Lloyd.  Both films are preoccupied with being British subjects.  Subjectivity is a fascinating topic itself, and very complex.  In relation to Mutiny on the Bounty, the notion that is instilled in the sailors, the idea that they are British subjects, is the reason that Bligh is able to dominate The Bounty with such totality.  He is constantly invoking the right of the Crown and Crown Law.  Even as far away as is physically possible from England, he forces the crew to uphold their status as British subjects.  With Bligh acting as such a monster, the only way to escape him is to deny the Crown and the laws attached to the Crown, mutinying against their captain.  Suddenly they have become ‘free’, no longer dominated by the British law, until Bligh returns to arrest them in the name of the Crown.

Remaining steadfast to British law they means that they must suffer the death-penalty and that they therefore cannot exist any longer.  They must run to a treacherous and forgotten island in order to live.  The film seems to be saying, whether consciously or not, that freedom of self can only be attained through a complete rejection of the known world.  As long as we answer to the law we are not free, yet to question the law is to force us onto a forgotten island and lose freedom all together.

And on a final note, this film had great editing.

It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)

Finally, the man himself.  Clarke Gable.  A legend.  An icon.  A role-model.  One hell of a good-looking man.

It Happened One Night is the original Romantic Comedy.  Okay, so it’s probably not actually the original romantic comedy, but it is the romantic comedy which every one since has tried to emulate in terms of box office success, critical response and timelessness in general.  The inimitable Clarke Gable plays a reporter who falls in love with a rather wealthy young lady played by Claudette Colbert.  They argue, they whine, they fall in love.  Films haven’t changed much at all.

It Happened One Night captures the essence of the escapist comedy.  It’s a film made for laughs which is expertly played and beautifully shot.  It’s the reason the romantic comedy still exists today!  But can you imagine a movie like The Break Up winning Best Picture?  I sure can’t.  Better yet, can you imagine The Break-Up dominating the Academy awards, winning Jennifer Aniston Best Actress, Vince Vaughn Best Actor, and the film getting best script?  The idea’s probably funnier than the movie!  But It Happened One Night won all the top awards at the Academys, beacuse this film defined a genre.  How did the selectors have the foresight to immortalise this?

Visually this film has a lot more open space than its immediate predecessors.  Many scenes literally sparkle, a welcome change from the dreary environments of Cavalcade. There are ocean vistas and wide fields.  Clarke Gable cruising down the country lane in an old Ford is an image I could never forget.  And I have learned that Frank Capra, who would go on to direct It’s A Wonderful Life, invented some now standard camera techniques, such as the tracking shot, which make this film a technical delight.

It’s interesting that this is the first film since The Broadway Melody to be set in the year it was made.  I remember my mother once asked why Musicals and Comedies were in the same category at the Golden Globes, and at the time I couldn’t answer as the two are distinctly different genres today.  But undertaking this project and watching these films from the 30’s sheds a little more light on this.  There seems to have been a convention for ‘light-hearted’ material (ie Musicals such as The Broadway Melody) to come from the contemporary world, and for human dramas to be set historically or internationally (Cavalcade, All Quiet On The Western Front).  This doesn’t mean that the there is a lack of heart in the musical or comedy though.  We are still able to learn about what it is to be human.  In this case of It Happened One Night, I would suggest that the lesson is that we all need somebody else, no matter how independant we may think we are.

What makes It Happened One Night distinct from the modern RomCom is that it is able to convince you that this is a story worth hearing.  It’s very witty and has some great laughs.  A question though: why do all the girls from these early films look the same?  Clara Bow, Bessie Love, Greta Garbo, Irene Dunn and now Claudette Colbert…pretty much mirror images of one another.