The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

The Two of Us

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Claude Berri’s autobiographical, The Two of Us is a gem set during WWI in France. It opens with Claude, a mischievous boy, stealing a toy tank from a toy store getting chased all around. Claude finds trouble at every turn driving his father to distraction. Because since they’re Jewish, the safest path for the family is to lay low, but Claude constantly calls attention to himself with his troublemaking. A family friend arranges for Claude to go live with her Catholic parents.

The problem is that “Grampa” is quite a bigot and spouts all sorts of anti-Semitic slurs. Claude is coached to hide is religion so he’ll be safe in the countryside. Nonetheless, he’s mercilessly bullied for being the new kid from Paris. You just can’t win.

Based on the director’s own childhood experience, there’s a sophisticated treatment of a close relationship that grows in spite of prejudice. Played masterfully by Michel Simon, Grampa loves this boy and takes him under his wing, dealing with his troublemaking with patience Claude’s father couldn’t muster. Berri chose Cohen to play Claude while visiting a Jewish school and seeing him getting into trouble in class and later hiding from the principal behind some curtains. The shoes poking out from under the curtains gave him away. A natural actor, Cohen brings a realism to his understated performance.

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The Two of Us, as Truffaut commented, shows how most French people lived during the war, those who weren’t in the Resistance or helping the Germans. People just going about their business; people who could be both kind, loving, and yet be hindered by ugly beliefs. It’s a deft film that can portray bigotry without supporting hatred all the while showing the goodness mixed in with the prejudice.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD, as usual, includes insightful short interviews that deepen one’s understanding of the film.

If you liked Claude Berry’s later films, Jean de Floret or Manon of the Spring, you’ll love The Two of Us.

A Gentleman’s Agreement

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I felt in the mood for an old movie so off the top of my head I entered “Gregory Peck” in Netflix’s search box. The first film in the list was A Gentleman’s Agreementwhich is the story of a journalist, Philip Skylar Green (Peck), whose hired to do a story on anti-Semitism for a weekly magazine. A widower, Green’s just come to New York with his young son and mother.

While some may think the film is too talky or preachy, I’d disagree. I liked that a film would take on such a dirty secret. Green doesn’t merely encounter and write about blatant anti-Semitism, he reacts to those who aid and abet, the polite, liberal people who aren’t anti-Semitic, but remain quiet when comments and jokes are made. That’s a big part of the film.

A young divorceé, Kathy suggested the story idea to her uncle, the magazine publisher. She meets Green and they hit it off. Throughout the film, she maintains how she isn’t anti-Semitic and she’s defended a colleague who quit due to its vile consequences. Romance grows between Green and Kathy, but time and again Kathy’s behaves timidly when confronted with anti-Semitism. When Kathy’s sister gives a party for the newly engaged couple, Kathy tries to persuade Green to let the sister and her crowd know that he “really isn’t Jewish.” She tries to make exceptions time and again and this causes great conflict in their relationship. This behavior is exactly what the film aims to address – how well meaning people go along and behave in such a way that prejudice lives on.

Another sophisticated aspect of the film involved Green’s secretary. It turns out that when she first applied to work at the magazine using her real name, she was rejected. Then when she used a false name, one that doesn’t sound Jewish, she got hired. Green makes this problem known to the publisher, who insists that HR print a line in its ads stating that religion is a matter of indifference to getting the job.

When the secretary learns this, her reaction surprises Green. She’s worried that the “wrong kind of Jew” would be hired, perhaps a secretary who fits a stereotype she wants to distance herself from – someone too loud or who wears too much make up. This sort of complexity isn’t seen in movies today. I doubt such a movie would be made today. I know we’ve made great strides in acceptance and diversity, but my hunch is such bias is still with us and is ignored.

A Gentleman’s Agreement is a good film that could launch discussion within a family or classroom. It doesn’t bore and the actors – Gregory Peck, Celeste Holm, who won Best Supporting Actress, Dean Stockwell and others who aren’t well known but still performed well – make this film worthwhile.

Facts:
  • This film was 20th Century Fox‘s top grossing film of 1948.
  • A Gentleman’s Agreement won Best Director and Best Picture at the Oscars.
  • Producer Darryl F. Zanuck sought legal advice regarding the naming of the three anti-Semitic political figures. When told there was only a small risk of libel, Zanuck, who wasn’t Jewish, replied, “Let them sue us. They won’t dare, and if they do, nothing would make me more happy than to appear personally as a witness or defendant at the trial.” As it turned out, Sen. Bilbo (D – Miss) died before the film’s release, Rep. Rankin (D – Miss) lost in his campaign to succeed Bilbo (but remained in Congress), and Gerald L.K. Smith filed a lawsuit that ultimately failed.
  • When other studio chiefs, who were mostly Jewish, heard about the making of this film, they asked the producer not to make it. They feared its theme of anti-Semitism would simply stir up a hornet’s nest and preferred to deal with the problem quietly. Not only did production continue, but a scene was subsequently included that mirrored that confrontation.
    Fact source: imdb.com