1930s, 3.5/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Review, William Dieterle

The Life of Emile Zola

The title of The Life of Emile Zola is not quite accurate. It does dramatize portions of Zola’s earlier climb in the French literary world, but only briefly. The bulk of the film is dedicated to the Dreyfus Affair and Zola’s involvement in it, culminating in his libel trial against members of the French army and self-imposed exile to France to avoid jail. It was an effort on Warner Brothers’ part, most notably after The Story of Louis Pasteur from the year before, to edge into the prestige film market after years of selling low-cost gangster pictures and musicals to the public, and it worked really well. Led by Paul Muni in the titular role, it was a box office success and won Best Picture at the 1937 Oscars. Warner Brothers was one of the big boys now.

Zola (Muni) and his literary travels are marked by both success and controversy. After his early cohabitation with the artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), he hits it big with Nana before moving on to needling prominent institutions like the French military in his book The Downfall, a critique of the military leaders’ actions during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This early section of the film, about thirty minutes worth, is all about building up a few different things regarding Zola’s character. There’s his pursuit of justice in French society through his writing, his cantankerousness, and his increasingly comfortable life, a conscious contrast with the early scenes in a draft attic apartment with Cezanne. It’s a very firm foundation on which to build the rest of the film, and it’s entirely carried by Muni’s performance. In terms of great classic Hollywood actors, Muni’s name seems to get lost in the shuffle, but he was one of those real actors, a Daniel Day Lewis of his day. Never letting it be forgotten that he was a star of both stage and screen, he pushed Warner Brothers to get him the roles he wanted as one of their few bankable stars in prestige productions, and he threw himself into the role with great skill and aplomb. It’s kind of amazing to think he’s the same guy who played the titular role in Howard HawksScarface just a few years earlier. He was a real chameleon of an actor.

Anyway, the film breaks from Zola a bit to give us the reduced form of the original actions of the Dreyfus Affair with Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) being shown as having sent the intelligence to the German embassy early so that the audience doesn’t need to ask about Dreyfus’ innocence from the start. We see the makeshift investigation that brings Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schlidkraut) into the crosshairs of the military leadership, mostly by the Chief of Staff (Harry Davenport), who quickly railroad the young, Jewish officer and send him to Devil’s Island. The modern point of contention around this is that Dreyfus’ Jewishness is downplayed to almost nothing (there’s a single on-screen reference to it that’s easily missed) when it was obviously a serious part of the motivation of the military leadership. Does the film lose something in that missing detail? Pretty obviously. It turns a tale of prejudice and elite arrogance into just elite arrogance, something that still has universal reach but loses the specificity of the actual story that colors it in an important way.

One thing that I really appreciated about how the story plays out, though, is how Zola first buys into the reporting on Dreyfus just like everyone else. Knowing the conventions of biopics of great men, I was expecting immediate involvement from Zola, no matter the history, but the broad strokes of the history is largely maintained. Zola doesn’t get involved for years, and when Mrs. Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) finally comes to him with evidence collected by Colonel Picquart (Henry O’Neill), an intelligence officer who found conclusive evidence of Walsin-Esterhazy’s guilt of the matter, evidence that the leadership squashed, Zola is initially skeptical. However, because of his broken friendship with Cezanne, hanging on friendly accusations of an over-comfortable lifestyle that disconnects him with the reality that they were searching for as starving artists in their youth when he burned popular books at the time as hypocritical while trying to stay warm, Zola feels his need to take part. It’s a very good bit of character work that builds off of what was founded in the early sections of the film, subtly nodded to in the moment without drawing too much attention to it, and then acted upon in a convincing way.

Zola write, “J’accuse”, the newspaper column that drew him into the libel suit from the French military, and the show trial that erupts is an obvious miscarriage of justice with the military allowed to reference the Dreyfus Affair whenever it suits them but Zola and his lawyer disallowed from mentioning it at all. The military is even allowed to enter into evidence a letter they only say exists and is genuine, the action that provokes Colonel Picquart, the only military witness for the defense, into spilling his guts that he knew of that letter and its forgery but had kept silent out of military discipline. History plays out with Zola losing his suit (I could easily have seen Hollywood changing this around to an outright victory, but this was 1930s WB, not 1930s MGM, so the grittier side of things was en vogue at the studio).

The film does have some condensing of time to bring about the resolution of the affair into one neat little package with new civilian leadership coming in and cleaning up the upper echelons of the military, getting Dreyfus out of prison, and Zola dying right before Dreyfus is reinstated into the French military. In reality, Zola died in 1902 and Dreyfus wasn’t reinstated until 1906 after a few years of living under a half-measure of a pardon that kept his record of treason intact. Still, I don’t mind the cleaner Hollywood ending. It fits the emotional reality well enough.

The centerpiece of the film, seemingly the only thing that gets talked about anymore, is the extended six-minute shot of Muni as Zola addressing the camera in his final plea during his trial. It’s an effective moment and allows Muni to bring his theatrical skills effectively to the screen, but I think it reduces a great performance down to a showy centerpiece. From beginning to end, Muni creates a fully fledged character in Zola with real depth and an immediacy in everything he does. He’s supported well by the rest of the cast (I really like Sokoloff’s restrained performance as Cezanne that forms the conscience of the film) while William Dieterle, a strong WB house director, shoots effectively and well while capturing performances clearly.

I do think the film loses something by all but removing Dreyfus’ Jewishness, but the tale of his plight and Zola’s efforts to use his cultural power to fight for the beleaguered military officer, unfairly persecuted by his own leadership, is well-captured and handsomely staged. It’s also kind of funny that Muni never looks like he does in the poster. He’s got facial hair from the opening scene on and never loses it.

Rating: 3.5/4


3 thoughts on “The Life of Emile Zola”

  1. Well I don’t have to play catchup too much, as I watched this one before I realized you were ‘pausing’ earlier.

    This is a good example of how important first impressions and introductions are in a story. Because this movie lost me immediately. Zola’s drama queen bullshit, faking he’s sick, hiding from drafts like a bathhouse queen camping it up, and burning books (you wanna get on my bad side, burn books for no good reason) really prejudiced me against him.

    And that’s too bad as I’m quite familiar with the Dreyfuss affair, from past reading I’ve done. The trial was indeed a travesty of justice. But, anti-semitism wasn’t the reason. Blaming a Jew made things easier and it made for some easy slander and slurs but the real problem was the French military’s inability to admit that they are wrong and the tendency of the French State to treat all criticism of it as being ‘destabilizing attacks on Our Democracy’. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    And…I just don’t like Zola’s writing. I haven’t read everything he’s written but the fact that he out-sold Victor Hugo irritates me. But then…Stephen King and James Patterson are rich as Crassus.

    This is probably just a ‘me’ problem. I don’t much like the French and Muni’s performance put me on the back foot immediately. He’s good at what he’s doing, I just don’t like who he’s playing.


    1. I don’t mind the early parts at all because they do actually work to help build up character traits within Zola that he will have to revisit and re-evaluate as he’s deciding on whether to involve himself in the Dreyfus Affair, but I do wonder how it would have played if they had been able to re-approach that opening by introducing Zola as an older man just before the first events of the affair.

      I’ve never read a single book by him, though I feel like I should at some point. I’m currently drudging my way through Coningsby by Benjamin Disraeli, and I’m kind of regretting it.

      Reading The Genius of the System, there’s a decent focus on Muni because he was one of the main stars of WB, and he seemed like a really talented prima donna. He was an ACTOR, damn it. He wasn’t just some movie star. He did theater, and he did it great.


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