Life of Emile Zola, The (United States, 1937)

April 03, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Life of Emile Zola, The Poster

The Life of Emile Zola was the second biographical motion picture to win the Best Picture Oscar, following the previous year's The Great Ziegfeld. Although The Great Ziegfeld was in many ways better received during the '30s - in part because of the high quotient of "spectacle" in the production - the more sedate The Life of Emile Zola has better stood the test of time. It is among the least ostentatious and pretentious of the early Academy Award winners, showcasing neither an all-star cast nor an iconic director. It offers little more than a simple story told well, with a skillful blend of narrative and universal themes.

More than a century after his death, Zola's reputation has faded from what it was during his lifetime and even into the 1930s, when this movie was made. Today, his novels are ready primarily by scholars and students of world literature. In many North American textbooks, he is not even a footnote. Had Zola gone down in history as one of the Literary Giants, there is little doubt that The Life of Emile Zola would be better known and more frequently watched. As it is, it's among the most overlooked and infrequently seen of the Oscar winners. That's a shame because it's a compelling film that demands no previous knowledge of the title character in order to derive satisfaction from the story.

The Life of Emile Zola is neatly divided into two pieces. The first, which comprises the first hour, is primarily backstory and setup. It introduces Zola (Paul Muni) and the characters in his orbit, including his wife, Alexandrine (Gloria Holden), and the painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). As the curtain rises, the title character is a struggling author who has trouble holding down a regular job to pay his expenses. Things change with the 1880 publication of Nana, which becomes a huge success. For the next 18 years, Zola rises from obscurity to immense popularity. Then comes the Dreyfus affair.

Captain Albert Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is unjustly accused of treason when the army elects to use him as a scapegoat to protect a more elite officer. Once it becomes apparent that Dreyfus' court-martial and subsequent lifetime imprisonment on Devil's Island are unjust, a cover-up is instituted. Zola becomes involved after Dreyfus' wife, Lucie (Gale Sondergaard), begs him to look into the matter. Shaking off the cobwebs of a life that has become too comfortable, Zola examines the evidence and decides that a great injustice has been committed. On January 13, 1898 in the daily newspaper L'Aurore, his renowned column "J'accuse" appears - an open letter to the French President decrying the actions of the military's upper echelon of officers. The army retaliates by suing Zola for libel, thereby setting up one of the first, great courtroom drama sequences of the movies.

The film's first half is weaker than the second, due to the necessity of introducing characters, providing a sketch of Zola and his passion for righting wrongs, and setting up the Dreyfus case. The better focused and more dramatically compelling final hour is what elevates this above many similarly good-intentioned biopics. The courtroom sequences are suspenseful and contain all the elements we have come to expect from such scenes, and the aftermath leads to a satisfying resolution. Although the film ends on a sad note, the viewer exits the movie feeling that a worthwhile story has been told about how it is possible for one man to struggle against the system and win. The central appeal of Emile Zola (at least as represented in this movie) is identical to that of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and the title character in Erin Brockovich (two examples of many). The struggle is one of justice against corruption. It has become fashionable for the decaying institution to win in these stories (for a recent example, Red Riding comes to mind), but this is a situation in which that does not happen. The path to victory is not an easy one but, if it was, it wouldn't make for as compelling a story.

Another prominent theme in The Life of Emile Zola relates to the way in which governments manipulate the public perception of wartime activities not to benefit the people but to protect the status quo of the upper echelon. Zola is brutally, openly, and repeatedly critical of the French war council's actions - something that comes to head when he writes "J'accuse." He expresses his thesis thus: "It is not the swaggering militarists - they are but puppets who dance as the strings are pulled. It is those others, those who would restlessly plunge us into the bloody abyss of war to protect their power." It's disconcerting to consider how prophetic these words sound filtered through a prism of recent events. Zola died at the beginning of the 20th century and the script in which he expresses these views was written when the storm clouds for World War II were just beginning to gather. Their universality and timelessness is undeniable.

The cast of The Life of Emile Zola is comprised primarily of character actors, with the lone exception of Paul Muni. During the 1930s, Muni was a legitimate A-lister, beloved for his versatility and intensity by both critics and the general movie-going populace. His Best Actor nomination for The Life of Emile Zola was fifth of six, and his fifth in less than a decade. (He won once, for his portrayal of the title character in 1936's The Story of Louis Pasteur.) After The Life of Emile Zola, Muni's career began a downward trajectory which accelerated when a dispute with Warner Brothers led to his contract being terminated. It has long been argued that Humphrey Bogart indirectly owes his stardom to Muni. Bogart was awarded the lead role in 1941's High Sierra (viewed by most as the film that catapulted him into the stratosphere) only after Muni, who was originally cast, broke with Warner Brothers. The actor worked sparingly during the 1940s and 1950s, making only two movies after 1946.

For his interpretation of Alfred Dreyfus, Joseph Schildkraut won his sole Oscar (Best Supporting Actor). He was a familiar face during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, usually in secondary roles. Beginning in the 1950s, he transitioned to television, where he enjoyed a "second career." Gale Sondergaard, who plays Dreyfus' indefatigable wife, was twice recognized with Supporting Actress nominations by the Academy - once in 1937 for Anthony Adverse (she won) and once in 1947 for Anna and the King of Siam (she didn't win). Gloria Holden, best known to fans of the early Universal monster movies as the title character in Dracula's Daughter, came to The Life of Emile Zola immediately after making that film - quite a change in tone. These three supporting performances bolster Muni's visible, central portrayal. This is not an ensemble cast; with the exception of the fifteen-minute interlude during which the Dreyfus case is introduced, Muni's presence dominates the production.

Willaim Dieterle, one of the most respected directors of his day, was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for his work in The Life of Emile Zola (he lost to Leo McCarey for The Awful Truth). He never won an Academy Award and this was the only movie for which he was nominated; however, he was at the helm for a number of remembered titles, including the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the "definitive" one featuring Charles Laughton), The Devil and Daniel Webster, and Portrait of Jennie. McCarthyism was in part responsible for the decline of Dieterle's career. Although he was never blacklisted, many of his associations were deemed suspect and this resulted in quality work being difficult for him to obtain.

Conventional bio-pics, despite being frequent Oscar fodder, are rarely of great interest. Those that opt for a comprehensive approach often result in overlong, disjointed productions, with The Great Ziegfeld offering an example. Those that focus on a specific event or series of events are typically more dramatically successful. This is the approach taken by The Life of Emile Zola; with its rousing courtroom sequence and David vs. Goliath depiction, it's the stuff of compelling drama. And, even though few alive today are likely to know the name of Emile Zola, many of the movie's themes are as relevant in the modern world as those represented in any early 21st century motion picture.

Life of Emile Zola, The (United States, 1937)

Run Time: 1:56
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1