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The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola
Warner DVD
1937 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 116 min. / Street Date February 1, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erin O'Brien-Moore, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Art Direction Anton Grot
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music Max Steiner
Written by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, Norman Reilly Raine from a book by Matthew Josephson
Produced by Henry Blanke
Directed by William Dieterle

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 Sondergaard).

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 system.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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 laundry. In 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

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