“The Life of Emile Zola” (1937)

Directed by William Dieterle
US, 116 minutes
Starring Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut

The Life of Emile Zola depicts…well, the life of French author Emile Zola. Actually, it really doesn’t. I’d say about the first twenty minutes of the film, which is easily the worst part, is devoted to Zola. The rest of the film could have been called The Dreyfus Affair. Once the affair, which revolved around a French officer being falsely accused of treason, begins, the film really takes off. In fact, I think the best part of the film does not even involve Zola. The set-up for the affair is brilliantly done, with Schildkraut earning every penny that went into making that Best Supporting Oscar.

Muni is pretty good here, although it felt like he was running on autopilot until his stirring speech to the jury at the end of the film. However, even during the trial, Muni is overshadowed by the actor who plays his defense. Muni is often left to make quizzical facial expressions behind intense make-up. (Which brings up another question: Why do the men in this film age, but not the women?)

The best part of the film is the courtroom sequence...the rest is forgettable

Still, the screenplay of the film is the best part. In typical Studio System Hollywood fashion, three people are credited with it (Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg) and all of them must have worked so there is no superfluous moment on screen. However, I still think that if you want to make a film about someone’s life, you should devote more than twenty minutes of the nearly two-hour film to his life. The film is really about the Dreyfus affair and Zola’s connection to it more so than to the life of Zola. I think the film does a magnificent job covering the affair in the time constraints, considering in most history books the event gets just a sentence. I do laud it for not dwelling on the possibility of antisemitism involved. In fact, the only way you would know that Dreyfus was Jewish is by the quick shot of the profile list of generals that says ‘Religion: Jew’. Warner also made the interesting decision by saying that facts may not necessarily be 100% accurate because, after all, this is just a movie.

Warner’s DVD has a ‘Special Edition’ moniker, but that doesn’t really apply since the release is just your standard Warner release which means the inclusion of unrelated two-reelers, a cartoon and a radio version. There’s also a trailer. A scholar commentary would have been nice and the transfer is inexcusably bad. This one surely is not coming to BluRay anytime soon.

The Verdict: The Life of Emile Zola is a true Hollywood relic. While the last hour of the film is powerful, the actual life of Zola as portrayed in the film is weak. The Awful Truth is the only other film nominated for Best Picture in 1937 that I have seen and I have to say, Leo McCarey’s comedy was a much better overall film. Still, if you happen to be at a Big Lots and see this for $3 too, don’t hesitate to get it.

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