Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A worthy highbrow classic awarded the Best Picture Oscar for 1937, The Life of Emile Zola is
still a vital and moving drama and interesting from several angles. Popular actor Paul Muni was
on a run of biopics at this time, but the scripting here is solid, especially in the later stages
of the story. Emile Zola champions the defense of Alfred Dreyfus and brings down half the French
army over a corruption scandal. The mechanics of the expedient smear and the cowardly cover-up
haven't changed, and like our own Dr. Mudd scandal just after the Civil War, historians are still
arguing this one. Paul Muni's courtroom defense speech is one of the original showstoppers of
courtroom movie history.
Starving writer Emile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a garrett with the equally poor
Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) until his fiancée Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) finds him
a job in a bookstore. The censors think his work is scandalous, which loses the budding writer his
position, but he soon writes Nana after interviewing a real woman of the streets
(Erin O'Brien-Moore) and telling her story honestly. More controversial books exposing public
scandals make Zola rich and content to the point that Cezanne decides it's time they parted
company. Just as Emile is about to be inducted into special state honors, he risks his career
and reputation on a reckless defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a Jewish
army officer made the scapegoat for a breach in security by unscrupulous bigshots in the general
staff. Rotting on Devil's Island, Dreyfus' only champion is his faithful wife Lucie (Gale
The Life of Emile Zola is a crowd-pleasing Cliff's Notes digest of the great writer's
story. His name has become synonymous with the literary phrase naturalism, a nice way of stating
that Zola specialized in unvarnished accounts of the baseness, cruelty and passions of life as it
was lived on the streets of Paris.
Paul Muni brings Zola to life and spirit, and even if he's not remembered as an actor of great
stature or finesse, he was excellent in a string of films where he'd put on a different
makeup and transform himself into yet another famous or exotic character - Louis Pasteur, Benito
Juarez or Wang Lung, the Chinese hero of The Good Earth. Zola's story indeed skates between
a few high points and moves on, but each scene adds a telling dimension to his character. The
wonderful Vladimir Sokoloff has his best film footage here as Zola's old friend in poverty,
chiding him for becoming rich and fat. A few details are rather clumsily foreshadowed, such as
Zola's fear of window drafts. Likewise, the exposition gets a bit thick now and then, with various
characters sitting around telling us how bad conditions are at the beginning of the Franco-Prussian
war, or Zola arguing out loud with himself on whether he should regard the Dreyfus problem as a
duty of conscience or a badly-timed inconvenience. We know darn well he's going to come to the rescue
of the unjustly convicted officer.
The Dreyfus affair is an important issue because Hollywood had rarely tackled such a complex
problem. The case was still a sticking point in France, and making a big deal of history forty
years gone could still result in Warners losing a lot of revenue if France declined to import
the film. The same thing happened in 1957 with Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory - incensed
French distributors refused to let a film criticizing their army be exhibited. 1
The bigger issue in the Dreyfus affair is anti-Semitism, the real reason that the army officer was
framed for an espionage crime he did not commit. Hollywood didn't directly confront that everyday
reality until 1945 and Crossfire, a movie about a Jewish soldier murdered in a hate crime.
At only one point in The Life of Emile Zola is Alfred Dreyfus identified as Jewish, and I'll
bet that the writers and producers of the movie had to fight to keep that reference, seen only as
a fleeting word on a statistical blotter. The script emphasizes the incompetence and corruption
in the French general staff but barely touches on the heinous anti-Semitism that was at the heart
of the Dreyfus affair. Yet, in 1937 that one word was a brave move on someone's part to buck the
The Life of Emile Zola creates a good feeling of altruism and hope even though Zola's
defense is a technical defeat. It doesnt go overboard in its enthusiasm to celebrate man's better
nature. While watching Zola and Dreyfus suffer through the trial, I stopped to think how
Frank Capra would have overloaded the sentiment and hyped the drama. At some point in the middle of
the trial, Emile would collapse under the certainty that he would fail and that his whole life has
been a sham. But then ... Capra would have Paul Cezanne reappear to rekindle Zola's spirit, or
some spontaneous outpouring of public support would galvanize Zola to try again, fighting back
tears while his Dreyfus' wives break down in sympathetic agony ... you get the idea. This
biopic has the good sense not to overplay its hand.
Joseph Schildkraut won an Oscar for his portrayal of Dreyfus. He'd been in Griffith and DeMille's
silent films and much later played Anne Frank's father, another persecuted Jew, in
The Diary of Anne Frank.
Zola's wife is played by Gloria Holden, immediately recognizable as
Dracula's Daughter from two years
before. Even more central to the issue of injustice is the actress who plays Dreyfus' wife Lucie,
Gale Sondergaard. A liberal with a background promoting Communist causes in the 1930s, she was
blacklisted along with her director husband in 1949. Her career was stopped dead in its tracks and she
was not seen again on the screen for twenty years.
Warners' DVD of The Life of Emile Zola has an almost perfect copy of the film, which didn't
look all that good on the 16mm prints they used to show us in Junior High. Max Steiner's restrained
score graces the clear audio track. For extras on this rather spare special edition, Warners
has included three short subjects from 1937, two of which are in then-experimental 3-Strip Technicolor.
The Littlest Diplomat is a painful dramatic piece that reminds more than a little of a
later Shirley Temple film, Wee Little Winkie. Romance Road is an equally inane musical
novelty about the Canadian mounties. Ain't We Got Fun is a cat and mouse musical cartoon that
seems in an older style than other Schlesinger animation of the time.
In addition to a theatrical trailer, the disc includes a radio presentation of The Life of Emile Zola
from 1939 with Paul Muni reprising his title role.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Life of Emile Zola rates:
Supplements: three short subjects, radio version, trailer (see text above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 20, 2005
1. I suppose they're no
different than any other country, but those French are touchy about foreigners airing their dirty
Seconds they cut a reference to
the Sorbonne as a place where a phony diploma could be obtained. The French version of Major Dundee
clips several derogatory lines of dialogue and adds a disclaimer to soften the film's portrayal of
the French occupation of Mexico in the 1860s.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson