The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

9.0 Overall Score
Story: 9/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Interesting character study, still topical

The court drama might not be for everyone

Movie Info

Movie Name:  The Life of Emile Zola

Studio:  Warner Bros.

Genre(s):  Drama

Release Date(s):  August 11, 1937

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated


Champion of the people!

Emile Zola (Paul Muni) spent his life fighting against the system and trying to tell the stories of those whose voice was seldom heard.  As a trumpeter of the lower classes, Zola finds himself in combat with the government and military.  When a captain named Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is accused of treason and sentenced to Devil’s Island, Zola begins his biggest challenge by taking on the military head on in court…and it is a battle that Zola might not be able to win.

Directed by William Dieterle, The Life of Emile Zola tells the true story of famed French author Emile Zola and particularly focuses on what is commonly known as “The Dreyfus Affair” which ended with Zola fleeing imprisonment in France.  The movie the winner of Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Schildkraut), and Best Writing—Screenplay and received nominations for Best Actor (Muni), Best Director, Best Writing—Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Sound—Recording, Best Assistant Director, and Best Music—Score.  The movie was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


This whole court is out of order!!!

Emile Zola had a pretty interesting life and an interesting writing career.  The movie does a nice job telling it and seemingly doesn’t alter too many details.  The movie picked a good subject and despite the fame, I am rather surprised that it has not been revisited in the current political climate.

The whole course of the story is rather interesting.  From Zola’s early life with friends like the famed artist Paul Cezanne (played by Vladimir Sokoloff) to the trial, Zola would be considered a radical today…and still probably criticized.  The movie is filled with speeches and grandiose testimony (which I surprisingly don’t mind) so it could not sit well with everyone.  I am a fan of court TV series and it does have a court series feel.  Not covered in the film is the suspicion that Zola was assassinated by his enemies and that the “accidental” carbon monoxide poisoning could have been plotted by people he criticized.


Sorry we imprisoned you…here’ s a gift certificate for McDonalds

It is rather surprising that Muni did not win the Best Actor award.  I do find his final (long) speech rather rousing.  The film was shot in reverse order with Muni doing the final scenes first and then his character being de-aged.  Schildkraut who won as the tortured Dreyfus does give a great performance.  I enjoy the scene where he is released from prison and marvels at being able to be out of his cell after years of imprisonment.

The movie could easily be a play.  It doesn’t have a ton of locations and is primarily a court drama.  This doesn’t allow for very dynamic shooting, but the film still manages to be engaging…I just wish it had utilized the Paris setting better…It could have been a more dynamic film.


Was Zola assassinated?

There is a bit of controversy surrounding the film.  Due to the desire for the movie to still sell in Germany where the Nazi Party was beginning to rise to power, the movie was considered a bit of an attack on Hitler’s control.  Allegedly all uses of the word “Jew” and “Jewish” were removed from the script (Dreyfus was supposed to be Jewish and reporting to Germany) because the makers didn’t want to offend Hitler’s regime.

I find something about this early biopic interesting.  Maybe it’s the government cover-up or the court case, but I do enjoy this early Best Picture more than some of the other early Best Picture entries.  The Life of Emile Zola is a strong picture and still enjoyable (and scarily still topical) today.

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Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

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