The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

As the 1937 winner for Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola, is a film that leaves many more drags in time than pulsing moments of fascination and captivating action. For a film recording the life of one of France’s most public figures, The Life of Emile Zola fails to give the audience a sincere sense of the man, but instead presents a puffed-up sense of a public man trying to maintain a public influence.

Paul Muni in the titular role

What we know about Émile Zola, based on the first half of the film, is that he was prone to getting ill, lived in poverty, had a loving wife, and was friends with the painter Paul Cézanne. Eventually, he sells his first blockbuster novel, Nana, and suddenly Zola has enough money to write full-time. We, the audience, see his success build and build and then we are brought in to a conspiracy occurring within the French Army, where officer Alfred Dreyfus is accused and convicted of treason, purportedly because he is Jewish. Enter Émile Zola.

Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Dreyfus

Once Dreyfus is humiliated and sent to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement on a solitary South American island, Zola reenters the film as he takes up Dreyfus’s cause, having been convinced to do so by Lucie Dreyfus. Zola famously wrote his open letter “J’Accuse” about Dreyfus’s erroneous conviction, openly accusing the French government of anti-semitism. In sum, as a result, Zola was prosecuted and convicted of libel. Most importantly, Alfred Dreyfus eventually was exonerated of all crimes attributed to him due to the “J’Accuse” inquiry, and allowed to return home, with a return of his military rank and honors.

Quite simply, I accuse this film of having a disjointed execution. Yes, by the end we understand that Zola’s goal was to fight for justice, but only because of a blatant statement of such in his eulogy. Hollywood had done better by this point in 1937, and we all know it’s done better since.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 116 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut.

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The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I’m not quite sure that the producers of The Great Ziegfeld know what kind of film they were trying to make. A biopic? A musical? A comedy? A drama? All of the above? If the later is the answer then that explains a lot about the overall ineffectiveness of the film. The life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is one that is tied with film history. Those various ties may be the reason the film won Best Picture, rather than the storytelling and performances.

Ultimately, the film suffers from the less than charismatic performance of William Powell in the lead role. The overarching throughline of the film is that Ziegfeld was able to outspend and out-persuade all other promoters and show producers of the era. However, Powell’s Ziegfeld doesn’t come off as the kind of man who would compel anyone to leave their current management team, especially for a salary they might never see. For early cinema history fans, Ziegfeld’s pursuit of Edison’s Sandow the Strong Man, is a flashback to the truly earliest days of nickelodeon movies. In fact, it’s the inclusion of early American theater performers like Will Rogers and Fanny Brice that brings a special charm to the film. Unfortunately, the charm wasn’t enough for the film’s three-hour run time.

The film’s strength is in meticulous recreation of the outlandish and lavish production numbers of the Ziegfeld Follies. The sheer number of cast members is staggering. Then when you add in the massive sets, one quickly realizes why the Follies is still regarded as the epitome of spectacle. This nod to theater history is the most enjoyable part of the film, by far. And that dog number? I can’t even, as the kids say.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 176 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan.

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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

When starting this project of watching all of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture, in order, there were a few, early on, that I wasn’t looking forward to. I thought they would be a bore, quite frankly. I thought the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty would be one of those. When I saw that the film was directed by Frank Lloyd, the director of Cavalcade (1933), I was even more certain. I am so glad that I was wrong. Mutiny on the Bounty was an arresting, tense, and visceral exploration of power and redemption. Starring Clark Gable, a year after his Oscar-winning turn in It Happened One Night, and the stunning Charles Laughton as the infamous Captain Bligh, the story of the HMS Bounty is a compelling one.

Based on the true story of the ship’s 1787 voyage to Tahiti, audiences come to sympathize with the crew of crooks, as Captain Bligh thinks of them. Fletcher Christian’s frustration with Bligh runs high throughout most of the film, finally reaching the point of no return when he commands those under him to mutiny and put Bligh and his devotees on a glorified row-boat, to tame the oceans of Southeast Asia. In a testament to his skill as a sailor, Bligh makes his way back to England and quickly proceeds to return to sea to find Christian. Nearly being found by Bligh, Christian shows his prowess as a sailor, as well, and manages to escape from Bligh, never to be captured or prosecuted for his mutinous behavior. Mutiny on the Bounty is such a robust story of action and adventure, it’s no wonder it has been remade several times, with stars like Marlon Brando, Mel Gibson, and Russell Crowe. As is usually the case, the original deserves viewing and judgment for the standard against which the others must compete.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) 132 minutes. Directed by Frank Lloyd.  Starring Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Eddie Quillan.

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It Happened One Night (1934)

It isn’t long into Frank Capra’s romantic comedy classic, that the audience knows this film is complete– complete in vision, performance, editing… everything. Just as Sunrise and Wings showed how fine a silent film could be, It Happened One Night showed us what the ’emergent’ sound film could be. A reflection of the film’s quality is it being the first film to win the top five Academy Awards of Best Film, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actress (Claudette Colbert), Best Actor (Clark Gable), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Riskin).

Despite the wonderfulness of the film, there is a very clear infantilization of Ellen Andrews, played by Claudette Colbert. As the daughter of millionaire Alexander Andrews, Ellie is repeatedly called a brat. After destroying her father’s dinner, fine china and all, he slaps her with a force that shocks both of them. Later on in the film, Peter Warne, played by Gable, yells at Ellie to “Shut up!”, tells her she needs a good “sock in the nose,” and threatens to kill her, with veracity and venom that is shocking. Eerily, Ellie walks off and Peter comes to stand behind her, touch her hand, and apologize sincerely. Viewing the film 80+ years after it’s original release, there is a tension understanding the unacceptable actions directed at Ellie by the men in her life, yet enjoying the budding romance between her and Peter. The film reminds us that art is never perfect. It’s up to us to resolve the arguments in our mind and I choose to enjoy the film, in the midst of the jerkiness of the men.

It Happened One Night (1934) 105 minutes. Directed by Frank Capra.  Starring Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Walter Connolly, Charles C. Wilson.

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Cavalcade (1933)

It wasn’t long into Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade that the film felt different. It wasn’t because the film focusses on a well-to-do English family at the turn of the century. Instead, the ‘difference’ of Cavalcade is that early on the tone and style of the performances denote a slight departure from the traditional Hollywood film. Although distributed by Fox Film Corporation, the film was produced by Fox in London, and hence the feeling of Cavalcade as a ‘foreign’ film bears out.

Cavalcade follows the lives of the Marryot family– Jane, Robert, and their two children Joey and Edward. The film opens with the family ringing in the 20th century while worrying about the rumors of war. The family’s butler and maid, Alfred and Ellen Bridges, share the very same worries. None of the four’s worries go unwarranted because shortly after the new year, both Robert and Alfred travel to Africa to fight for England. This sets the course for both families as they endure tragedy after tragedy, through 1933, where we see the Marryot’s ring in yet another year. The cumulative effect of the tragedies each family endures, produces a dour feeling, instead of an appreciation for the resilience each family has. It makes a person almost long for the next Oscar winner, a comedy that has Hollywood firing on all cylinders. *cough*

Cavalcade (1933) 112 minutes. Directed by Frank Lloyd.  Starring Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook, Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin.

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Grand Hotel (1932)

As a teenager I remember becoming aware of Greta Garbo. A news program of some sort did a story about how reclusive this former star was. She was so myterious to me, this woman of reknown and beauty in her youth. What would make her become quiet and absent to the world around her? It wasn’t until this last decade that I became more interested in the Swedish beauty who wanted “to be alone,” so says her character in Grand Hotel, ballerina Grusinskaya. Now, instead of a mysterious film creature, Garbo highlights the transition from silent film starlet to sound film actress. In Grand Hotel, that transition isn’t a smooth one. Although she receives top billing in the film, it’s the ‘supporting’ cast of John and Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford that give Grand Hotel it’s heart.

Grand Hotel also reminds the viewer that there was a time when Hollywood didn’t run from internationally based locales for its films. For example, You’ve Got Mail (1998) is based on the 1940 film Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart as a clothing store in Budapest. And so the Grand Hotel takes us to Berlin where the comings and goings of its customers unravel before us. Would the movie be less effective if it took place in New York? No. But we do realize there is a romanticism to the film because of its international location and characters.

Pay close attention to Otto Kringelein when he first arrives at the front desk. You’ll recognize one of early Hollywood’s meanest villains/bankers. By the end, his relationship with a young Joan Crawford gives us all hope of finding some joy in a bleak world.

Grand Hotel (1932) 112 minutes. Directed by Edmund Goulding.  Starring John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo. 

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Cimarron (1931)

Before it’s full review of Cimarron in 1931, Variety magazine described the film as “An elegant example of super film making and a big money picture.  This is a spectacular western away from all others.  It holds action, sentiment, sympathy, thrills and comedy- and 100% clean.  Radio Pictures has a corker in ‘Cimarron.'”  Variety wasn’t completely off-track with their description.  Cimarron is an example of good, old, wholesome Hollywood fare.  Following husband and wife Yancey and Sabra Cravat, as they moved to Oklahoma during the great westward expansion of the United States in the late 19th century, the film highlights the spirit of those early explorers and seekers of the American Dream.

It’s hard not to appreciate Yancey Cravat’s yearning desire for new adventures.  Although the toll it takes on his wife Sabra may lead others to think otherwise.  I know that I, for one, have always been fascinated by how we all got to where we are.  From the Midwest to Texas and back to the Midwest, my story of ending up in Missouri isn’t as interesting as Yancey’s tale of riding along the prairies of Kansas and Oklahoma to find a new home for him and his family.  His embrace of Native American culture is also a refreshing turn, given his wife’s uptight, privileged perspective.  Sabra’s attitudes are so severe, it’s hard to have complete empathy for her as the film progresses.  Eventually, Sabra softens as she carves out her own frontier success, just as Yancey traverses more frontiers of his own.

Cimarron (1931) 123 minutes. Directed by Wesley Ruggles.  Starring Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Eugene Jackson.

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All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

When watching early films in some kind of chronological order, you can see how quickly filmmakers and producers used emerging technologies to make grander, better films. Immediately, All Quiet on the Western Front resolves all of the sound issues that plagued the previous year’s Best Picture Oscar winner. What may seem small, becomes crucial in a film that must balance the crash of exploding bombs, the squeal as they approach the earth, the yards of bullets making their way through the guns on the ground, and the voices of those trying to stay alive.

Based on the novel by German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front is a fascinating study in movie studio greenlighting. The film is an empathetic look at the young German boys fighting and “saving the Fatherland.” If we remember our history, the United States fought against Germany in the Great War. One might think that the U.S. film industry wouldn’t feel kindly about making a film on those we fought againt, just as one can’t easily think of the Universal making a war film today about the young boys who fought for Al Qaeda. But perhaps we should. All Quiet on the Western Front reminds us that the casualties in war, far too often fall on the laureled, young heads of boys who have been sold a bill of goods that this is their obligation- to their manhood, their families, and their nations- when all they are, are boys wanting to catch a butterfly on their fingertips.

All Quiet on the Western Front. (1930) 136 minutes. Directed by Lewis Milestone, Starring Lew Ayres, Slim Summerville, Louis Wolheim, Walter Rogers.

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

In less than a year, the Academy Awards went from honoring two silent films in Wings and Sunrise to honoring it’s first musical in The Broadway Melody as the best film of the year.  The success of the film resulted in several more Broadway Melodies, making it one of Hollywood’s first franchises. In watching this film, it’s clear that director Harry Beaumont and the entire production crew were set on using the new technology of synchronous sound in all of it’s shapes, forms, and pitches. If you want to show an audience what sounds they can expect from their ‘new’ movies, a musical is certainly one way to go.

The transition to sound film may have created new jobs like diction coaches and screenwriters, but it also saw the end to many a career. Bessie Love, however, was a silent film actress who was able to make the transition to sound film, working until she was in her 80s. Her Academy Award-nominated performance as Hank Mahoney is full of energy and empathy. You can literally see how her silent film background allows her to use her face in ways that pack a wallop. She stands out amongst the cast as the best and most-fully rounded performer of The Broadway Melody.

For Singin’ in the Rain fans, The Broadway Melody shows us the earliest recordings of several songs later revived for the 1952 musical. Other than that, The Broadway Melody suffers from its flaws. But much like other Oscars that are handed out for reasons other than being the very best of the year, this particular award seemed to be a deliberate nod to future filmmakers that sound was cinema’s future and staying in the silent era was at oone’s own peril.

he Broadway Melody. (1929) 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King, Jed Prouty.

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