The Life of Emile Zola
|The Life of Emile Zola|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||William Dieterle|
|Produced by||Henry Blanke|
|Written by||Matthew Josephson (source material)
Heinz Herald (story and screenplay)
Geza Herczeg (story and screenplay)
Norman Reilly Raine (screenplay)
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Edited by||Warren Low|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about French author Émile Zola, played by Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle. It has the distinction of being the second biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It premiered at the Los Angeles Carthay Circle Theatre to great success both critically and financially. Contemporary reviews cited it the best biographical film made up to that time. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Set in the mid through late 19th century, it depicts Zola's friendship with Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, and his rise to fame through his prolific writing, with particular focus on his involvement late in life in the Dreyfus affair.
Struggling writer Émile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a drafty Paris attic with his friend, painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). A chance encounter with a street prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) hiding from a police raid inspires his first bestseller, Nana, an exposé of the steamy underside of Parisian life.
Other successful books follow. Zola becomes rich and famous; he marries Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) and settles down to a comfortable life in his mansion. One day, his old friend Cézanne, still poor and unknown, visits him before leaving the city, and tells Zola that with his success he has become complacent, a far cry from the zealous reformer of his youth.
Meanwhile, a French secret agent steals a letter addressed to a military officer in the German embassy. The letter confirms there is a spy within the top French army staff. With little thought, the army commanders decide that Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is the traitor, is courtmartialed and imprisoned on Devil's Island in then French Guyana.
Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating as the spy Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), but he is ordered by his superiors to remain silent to avert official embarrassment and is quickly reassigned to a distant post.
Years go by. Finally, Dreyfus's loyal wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) pleads with Zola to take up her husband's cause. Zola is reluctant to give up a comfortable life, but she brings forth new evidence to pique his curiosity. A letter is published in the newspaper accusing the army of covering up the monstrous injustice. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by military agents provocateurs.
As expected, he is brought up for libel. His attorney, Maitre Labori (Donald Crisp) does his best against the presiding judge's refusal to bring up the Dreyfus affair and the perjury committed by all the military witnesses, except for Picquart. Zola, found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, reluctantly accepts his friends' advice to avoid risk becoming a martyr and instead flee to England, to continue the campaign on behalf of Dreyfus.
A new administration finally admits that Dreyfus is innocent, those responsible for the coverup are dismissed or commit suicide, although Walsin-Esterhazy flees the country in disgrace. Zola dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty stove the night before the public ceremony in which Dreyfus is exonerated.
|Paul Muni||Émile Zola||Nominated||Best Actor|
|Gloria Holden||Alexandrine Zola|
|Gale Sondergaard||Lucie Dreyfus|
|Joseph Schildkraut||Captain Alfred Dreyfus||Presented||Supporting Actor|
|Donald Crisp||Maitre Labori|
|Henry O'Neill||Colonel Picquart|
|Morris Carnovsky||Anatole France, Zola's friend and supporter|
|Louis Calhern||Major Dort|
|Ralph Morgan||Commander of Paris|
|Robert Barrat||Major Walsin-Esterhazy|
|Vladimir Sokoloff||Paul Cézanne|
|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|
|Paul Everton||Assistant Chief of Staff|
|Montagu Love||M. Cavaignac|
|Frank Sheridan||M. Van Cassell|
|Lumsden Hare||Mr. Richards|
|Marcia Mae Jones||Helen Richards|
|Florence Roberts||Madame Zola, Zola's mother|
|Dickie Moore||Pierre Dreyfus, Captain Dreyfus's son|
|Rolla Gourvitch||Jeanne Dreyfus, Dreyfus's daughter|
Reception and interpretation
The movie was well received and had scenes widely interpreted at the time as attacks on the increasing repression of Nazi Germany. Critic David Denby in 2013 noted that, while the movie featured progressive rhetoric in Zola's last speech, overall it was "a perfect example of the half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion that marked Hollywood's response to Nazism and antisemitism in the nineteen-thirties." For instance, the film never mentioned "antisemitism" or "Jew". In 2013 American scholar Ben Urwand reported that studio head Jack Warner, a Jew himself, personally ordered the word 'Jew' to be excised from all the dialogue in the film.
Academy Nominations and Awards
|Best Picture||Warner Bros. (Henry Blanke, producer)||Presented|
|Best Actor||Paul Muni (Émile Zola)||Nominated|
|Supporting Actor||Joseph Schildkraut (Captain Alfred Dreyfus)||Presented|
|Best Writing, Screenplay||Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine||Presented|
|Best Actor||Paul Muni||Nominated|
|Best Art Direction||Anton Grot||Nominated|
|Best Assistant Director||Russ Saunders||Nominated|
|Best Director||William Dieterle||Nominated|
|Best Music, Score||Max Steiner, awarded to Leo F. Forbstein||Nominated|
|Best Sound, Recording||Nathan Levinson (Warner Bros. SSD)||Nominated|
|Best Writing, Original Story||Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg||Nominated|
21st century controversy
The film is among the subject films studied in two books published in 2013: Ben Urwand's The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, and Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939. Denby notes that Doherty provides more context for the studios' behavior, setting it against the political culture of the period. Urwand learned that Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, occasionally was allowed to review and make recommendations on films. But, in the same period, the studios set up an association office to develop a Production Code, directed by Will H. Hays, who appointed a Catholic layman, Joseph I. Breen as "censor-in-chief," who after 1934 had even more influence over movies. Denby found the studio heads acting as businessmen, who were sometimes overly cautious and fearful of their place in American society.
- [David Denby, "Hitler in Hollywood"], The New Yorker, 16 September 2013
- "Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis". The New York Times. 25 June 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2013.; Ben Urwand, "The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler," Belknap Press, 2013. ISBN 9780674724747; C-SPAN Program, Hollywood's Pact with Hitler." by Ben Urwand: December 11. 2013
- "The 10th Academy Awards (1938) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-08-10.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to The Life of Emile Zola.|
- The Life of Emile Zola at the American Film Institute Catalog
- The Life of Emile Zola at the Internet Movie Database
- The Life of Emile Zola at AllMovie
- The Life of Emile Zola at the TCM Movie Database