May 7, 2013
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Grade: 92/100

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Harry Davenport

What it's about. A once acclaimed and now mostly forgotten Hollywood biopic from the early sound era. Paul Muni had recently won Best Actor for playing the lead in The Story of Louis Pasteur, and the commercial and critical success of that movie led Warner Bros. to make another historical biography, this time about 19th century French writer Émile Zola.

The film begins with Zola (Muni) as a young man and muckraking writer sharing a Paris flat with then-obscure impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Zola makes a name for himself as a writer whose works are at first scandalous and later conventional, yet always profitable. Zola, now thick around the waist and somewhat complacent, lives a pleasant life with his adoring wife Alexandrine (Gloria Holden).

Meanwhile, the incompetent French government loses the Franco-Prussian War and is in need of a convenient national scapegoat to retain power. That man is Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), an innocent patriot blamed for a military spy misadventure actually committed by Major Esterhazy (Robert Barrat). Dreyfus is convicted, disgraced, and imprisoned at Devil's Island under inhumane conditions. Dreyfus is Jewish, which makes him a better target to convince an antisemetic public.

Dreyfus' loyal and determined wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) knows her husband is innocent, and successfully convinces Zola to champion his cause. Zola risks his career and freedom to challenge the French government by accusing them of knowingly imprisoning the wrong man. Zola is aided by his combative attorney Labori (Donald Crisp) and Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), another earnest and innocent victim of the French military cabal that prefers to keep Dreyfus at Devil's Island.

Zola too is convicted, but flees France to avoid imprisonment, and continues to write inflammatory articles condemning the French government. Eventually, a reformist party is elected, and sends the conspiracist military staff packing, including familiar face Harry Davenport. Dreyfus is released from prison and returned to his former position in the military. Alas, Zola is unable to attend the ceremony, since he dies the night before in an accidental death caused by carbon monoxide fumes from a blocked furnace.

How others will see it. The Life of Emile Zola was the first film to receive ten Oscar nominations, though that number would be swept away by Gone with the Wind two years later. The film won Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Schildkraut picked up an Oscar in his supporting role as the unlucky but persevering Captain Dreyfus.

How I felt about it. The film takes some liberties with French history, inevitable given the great complexity of the Dreyfus scandal, which unfolded over the long period between 1894 and 1906. The movie omits Dreyfus' second conviction in 1899 and moves Dreyfus' exoneration from 1906 to 1902 to coincide with Zola's death. The film implies that Zola was the primary advocate of Dreyfus when, of course, political opposition to the French regime was eager to embrace the cause.

But there is no denying the film's impact. Injustice is a powerful theme. War is infamous for rewarding scoundrels, such as Napoleon, while killing untold forgotten soldiers (and civilians) who were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Such is the case with Dreyfus, who suffers a "living death" at Devil's Island, despite his loyalty to France. Dreyfus is Jewish and defenseless, two reasons for conviction by a cynical and ruthless military clique bent on preservation of power.

Especially interesting is the film's depiction of public opinion. It is surprisingly easy for the contemptible French government to stir up (ostensibly antisemetic) public passion against Dreyfus. Intellectuals who know better cowardly look the other way, including Zola until he is convinced by Dreyfus' wife and, indirectly, by his old friend Cézanne, who sadly takes note of Zola's indolence and self-satisfaction.