#357) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

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#357) The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

OR “An Affair to Remember”

Directed by William Dieterle

Written by Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald & Geza Herczeg. Story by Herald and Herczeg. Based on the biography “Zola and His Time” by Matthew Josephson.

Class of 2000

The Plot: Paul Muni is Émile Zola, the celebrated French writer famous for his realistic novels, and equally famous for his outspoken opinions on the current state of France. In 1894, Jewish French Army officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is found guilty of treason and exiled on Devil’s Island. A few years later, new evidence suggests that Dreyfus is innocent, and his wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) pleads for Zola to support her husband and sway public opinion. Zola agrees, writing an open letter condemning the French government (“J’Accuse…!”), which gets him sued for libel, therefore bringing the Dreyfus Affair back into the courts. Can the father of naturalism save Dreyfus and expose the French Army’s corruption? And seeing how this a ‘30s studio film, can we ix-nay the whole ew-Jay angle?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film an “experiment in grandeur” from Warner Bros. in the vein of MGM’s “high-brow opulence”.

But Does It Really?: This one gets an “historical significance” pass. “Zola” is a noteworthy film primarily for highlighting how anti-Semitism was depicted (or not) in the films of the ‘30s, as the Nazis were gaining more power in Europe. Entertainment-wise, Muni is giving an enjoyable grandstanding performance, but most of the movie hinges on your prior knowledge of Émile Zola and the Dreyfus Affair, both of which are largely forgotten today. “Zola” is an interesting watch, but its historical significance is primarily academic, and a modern viewing may be reserved for hardcore film buffs.

Everybody Gets One: Emigrating from 1930s Germany, William Dieterle quickly became known as “the quintessential liberal director of the ‘30s”, specializing in biopics of historical figures fighting for a just cause. His 1938 film “Blockcade” – an anti-fascist drama about the Spanish Civil War – sparked controversy upon its release, and ultimately led to Dieterle being “graylisted” during the Hollywood Witch Hunt of the ‘50s.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the ‘30s biopic standards of playing fast and loose with historical license. According to this film, everything Émile Zola did in the first part of his life was setup to a later-in-life payoff.

Seriously, Oscars?: “The Life of Emile Zola” was a hit, and led the Oscar pack with 10 nominations. The 1938 Oscars spread the wealth amongst several films, but “Zola” still managed three important wins: Picture, Supporting Actor (Schildkraut), and Adapted Screenplay. William Dieterle lost the only Best Director nomination of his career to Leo McCarey for “The Awful Truth”, and had Paul Muni not won Best Actor the year before (for playing Louis Pasteur), he probably would have prevailed over Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous”.

Other notes

  • To name just a few of the film’s liberties with the real Émile Zola: Zola was never roommates with painter Paul Cézanne, nor did they maintain a lifelong friendship. In addition, Zola was interested in the Dreyfus Affair from the very beginning, and was not persuaded to write “J’Accuse” by Dreyfus’ wife.
  • As I’ve come to expect, no one in this movie has a French accent. Maybe this all takes place in Paris, Texas?
  • It’s a shame Muni didn’t continue his film career, because his Zola is a delight. Opinionated, steadfast, yet lovable and never repellent. 41-year-old Muni convincingly plays Zola from age 22 to 62. He was the Daniel Day-Lewis of his day…Lewis.
  • So whenever Zola was upset about something his solution was to write a book? Hey, if it pays the bills…
  • Easily the most notable omission in adapting this story to film: any mention to Dreyfus being subjected to anti-Semitism is deleted and, while the word “Jew” is shown in print once, it is never spoken aloud in the film. Some say Jack Warner refused to let the word “Jew” be said for fear of upsetting the Nazis, others believe studios in general practiced extreme caution determining what was and wasn’t suitable subject matter. Regardless, removing the anti-Semitism aspects of the Dreyfus Affair is like removing the racial elements of the O.J. Simpson Trial.
  • Once Zola agrees to write “J’Accuse” and get the ball rolling on a re-trial, the film picks up steam. The plodding biopic elements are replaced with an inherently dramatic courtroom drama.
  • Wait, is this where shouting “J’accuse!” comes from? I had no idea!
  • No offense to Joseph Schildkraut, but I think his Oscar win had more to do with sympathy towards the character rather than the performance. But hey, I wasn’t there; maybe he campaigned well.
  • And now we arrive at Paul Muni’s Oscar clip: Zola’s summation to the court. It is one uninterrupted three-minute take, and Muni nails it. I suspect the courtroom crowd did not have to act when they burst into applause.
  • This film lays on the Christ allegory a bit too heavily. Both Dreyfus and Zola are compared to the Son of God during the film. They’re both important figures, but come on.
  • Oh the irony of having someone convicted of forgery write a signed confession.
  • One final conflating of the facts: Zola did not die the same day Dreyfus was reinstated into the French Army. The two never met, though Dreyfus did attend the funeral.

Legacy

  • 1937 was the peak of Paul Muni’s Hollywood career, “Zola” being one of three films he starred in that year. Increasingly dissatisfied with moviemaking and stardom, Muni did not renew with Warner Bros. when his contract expired. He returned to the theater, most memorably in the original Broadway production of another famous court case: “Inherit the Wind”.
  • Joseph Schildkraut would play another Jewish figure that battled wrongful persecution: Otto Frank in 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank”.
  • There have been a handful of other film adaptations of the Dreyfus affair, notably “I Accuse!” directed by and starring Jose Ferrer, and the HBO movie “Prisoner of Honor” starring Oliver Reed and Richard Dreyfuss (no relation).

Further Reading: The part that “Zola” plays in how the Hollywood studios depicted anti-Semitism is explored further in two 2013 books: Ben Urwand’s “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler” and Thomas Doherty’s “Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939”.

Further Viewing: In 1899, as the Dreyfus case was being reopened, Georges Méliès filmed eleven short scenes depicting events from the original Dreyfus affair. “The Dreyfus Affair” series was very popular with the French public, many of whom thought these recreations were the real events.

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