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The Life of Emile Zola (1937) movie poster The Life of Emile Zola

Theatrical Release: October 2, 1937 / Running Time: 116 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Dieterle / Writers: Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg (screenplay & story); Norman Reilly Raine (screenplay); Matthew Josephson (source material Zola and His Time)

Cast: Paul Muni (Emile Zola), Gale Sondergaard (Lucie Dreyfus), Joseph Schildkraut (Capt. Alfred Dreyfus), Gloria Holden (Alexandrine Zola), Donald Crisp (Maitre Labori), Erin O'Brien Moore (Nana), John Litel (Charpentier), Henry O'Neill (Colonel Piquart), Morris Carnovsky (Anatole France), Louis Calhern (Major Dort), Ralph Morgan (Commander of Paris), Robert Barrat (Major Walsin-Esterhazy), Vladimir Sokoloff (Paul Cezanne), Grant Mitchell (Georges Clemenceau), Harry Davenport (Chief of Staff), Robert Warwick (Major Henry), Charles Richman (M. Delagorgue), Gilbert Emery (Minister of War), Walter Kingsford (Colonel Sandherr)

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- Viewed March 8, 2010

Here, we get another biopic and another subject previously unfamiliar to me
(and, I would imagine, many people). Emile Zola was a man, a French man who wrote a number of things in the 19th century.

The Life of Emile Zola is a deceptive title, because the bulk of the movie deals only with a legal proceeding that occupied the author near the end of his days. I suppose many consider that proceeding the crowning achievement of Zola's life, but I was largely unmoved by it, as depicted in this dry drama.

The film opens with Zola's modest beginnings, showing him ducking the landlord in his leaky tenement apartment. Zola's social-minded writings draw some opposition from government officials, but a book about a prostitute he calls Nana sells well enough to lift Emile and his wife out of poverty.

Having just been informed of his new financial comfort, French writer Emile Zola is more than willing to buy an umbrella in falling rain. While the courtroom breaks out in discussions, old Emile Zola (Paul Muni) remains stoically unmoved by the verdict he's just been handed.

Without much else of note happening, Zola is advanced in age and living comfortably, when the wife of Alfred Dreyfus pleas for the writer's assistance. Zola is initially reluctant to help out, but hearing more about the case (the French have accused Dreyfus of passing secrets to the Germany army), the ever-critical Zola lends his support.

Much of what ensues is courtroom drama and not the riveting, edge-of-your-seat kind, but a citizen David vs. government Goliath long shot. It is procedural and never any more interesting than a case of a clearly innocent family man accused by an unflinching government would have to be. Zola himself is put on trial for libel after a newspaper publishes his open letter (the famous "J'accuse...!"). When he's convicted, he pulls a reverse Polanski (fleeing from France to England).

Based on the weight that the film places on it, the so-called Dreyfus Affair seems to be a landmark case in which a colossal injustice was triumphantly overturned against the odds. Zola refused to back down from those stacked odds, a fact for which Mr. Dreyfus and his family were surely grateful. As the film presents them, though, the baseless treason charges are hard to get worked up over. Oh, they're wrong and especially coming after a casual but significant check of Dreyfus' religious affiliation (he's Jewish). But that much is clear and there are no sharp legal maneuvers or particularly graceful oration to heighten our investment in the due process.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is shocked to hear himself accused of high treason. Appearing in his second of three early Best Picture winners, Donald Crisp plays Maitre Labori, the lawyer representing Emile Zola in his libel trial.

Star Paul Muni, in his early forties at the time, was aged and styled to look like 60-year-old Zola. Muni, whose best-known credits today are his 1932 crime films Scarface and I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, had apparently taken interest in transforming himself to portray real-life figures.
Before Zola, Muni played innovative chemist Louis Pasteur (an Oscar-winning performance); later, he turned to Mexican president Benito Juarez and French explorer Pierre-Espirit Radisson.

Though committed to the craft (which he developed in Yiddish theatre and later pursued on the Broadway stage), Muni seems to have had his career hindered by his eccentricities, which reportedly included a vehement aversion to the color red and a wife who forced directors to reshoot scenes she was unsatisfied with. The actor's clashes with Warner Bros. led the studio to terminate his contract and recast the part in High Sierra that would make Humphrey Bogart a star. Prior to that, Muni was a marquee name, one whose own appearance was apparently enough to sell a film (see the Emile Zola poster above that doesn't at all reflect the movie or his characterization). Muni was Oscar-nominated for his first and last film appearances and ultimately earned one nomination for every five performances (five out of 25 altogether).

Early on in this project, I decided to occasionally supplement the Oscars' top winners with a viewing of another film from the same year that today seems to carry as much or more clout. While I didn't carry this out until 1939's releases, I feel I can retroactively label Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs my first appealing alternative. I revisited Walt Disney's 1937 animated feature back in January (when I still thought I could chronologically watch all of the Disney animated features alongside this Best Picture project).

Snow White is considered by many to be the greatest animated film of all-time (it topped AFI's Animation Top 10 in 2008 and was the higher-rated of two cartoons on both incarnations of the 100 Movies lists). I don't think there's any way it earns that title without the significance of being first, for its story and presentation are lacking compared to several other Disney films and, while recognizing they've had a much easier test of time, nearly the entire Pixar canon. That said, Snow White has a lot going for it in its animation, characters, and charm. It truly establishes a winning fairy tale format to which Disney returned and audiences approved. While labels like "slight" and "dated" are presently earned, Snow White encapsulates a magic that is at cinema's heart and no doubt exceeds Emile Zola in just about every way imaginable. Of course, Snow White wasn't even among the ten films nominated for Best Picture, suggesting the Academy's long-noticed biases against animation and crowd-pleasers were already in place then.

Getting back to Emile Zola, Warner treated the film, the studio's first Best Picture, to a Special Edition DVD in early 2005. It provides a taste of 1930s shorts' diversity with one cartoon, one musical, and one drama (most memorable of the three, The Littlest Diplomat). The disc also includes the trailer and an hour-long 1939 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of the film with Muni reprising his role.

The Life of Emile Zola rating: 6 out of 10 - Buy from Amazon.com

Previous: The Great Ziegfeld / Next: You Can't Take It With You

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Published April 18, 2010.



Text copyright 2010 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1937 Warner Bros. and 2005 Warner Home Video.