Genre: Drama and Legal Thriller Running Time: 1 hr. 56 min.
Release Date: October 2nd, 1937 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William Dieterle Actors: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Joseph Schildkraut, Gale Sondergaard, Donald Crisp, Erin O’Brien Moore, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, Louis Calhern, Vladimir Sokoloff
n Paris in 1862, impoverished Emile “Emi” Zola (Paul Muni), a writer, struggles to stay warm with his flatmate Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), a painter. “Soon the world will recognize me,” he muses. But first, he must pay the rent and the butcher. His mother finds him employment as a clerk for book publisher Monsieur La Rue, but the work is short-lived, as he’s approached by the authorities for writing inflammatory articles about the government and various social injustices of the time (with his piece “The Confessions of Claude”), resulting in an ultimatum: cease writing about his favorite subject matter, or lose the job. Promptly refusing to sacrifice his vision as an artist, Emile is once again out of work.
Unafraid of the public prosecutor, Zola continues to expose issues on public safety, corruption and graft, armed conflict, and concerns about the economic depression. When he meets an unfortunate woman fleeing from the police, he’s inspired to write about her sordid past as well. This novel, “Nana,” controversially exposing a life in the gutters, sells 36,000 copies in the first three days. Next, as France enters the war of 1870, Zola gains new topics for scrutinization. In “The Downfall,” he sharply criticizes the army, which demands penalties to be imposed by the chief censor. But Emile can’t be stopped; as he continues to expose the “misery, suffering, and the blood of the people” through governmental blunders, he grows wealthy, world famous, and a bit fat.
The transition from a youth in poverty to an accomplished elder is astonishingly fast. Within a half-hour, Zola’s life seems to have been summed up and approaching its end. And then, in a rather unusual narrative decision, the focus of the film shifts to an entirely new set of characters, interacting in 1894: the Jewish career captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) gets caught up in a witch hunt when the Hungarian Count Esterhazy treasonously gives state secrets to a German attache, causing a flurry of high-ranking military men to overreact, snoop, and jump to hasty conclusions. Antisemitism is hinted at, but this major motive is mostly ignored.
Although it takes a little while for Zola to return to the screen, it becomes evident that a great outrage is taking place, and that someone like the esteemed author might be the only person capable of righting the situation. “French justice today doesn’t make mistakes.” In the world of Emile Zola, the power of a sound voice (or the freedoms of the press) is more persuasive than the whole of a one-sided court system. As the picture progresses, however, the story feels more and more like a biography of Dreyfus; it is Schildkraut and Gale Sondergaard (playing his wife Lucie) who bear the most profound sequences, as the preservation of the reputation of authority figures (and the individual harms this causes) combats the grave repercussions of the truth (which threatens to diminish confidence in – and the honor of – the army). Nevertheless, as the mouthpiece for confronting the French military, Zola does risk a great deal – including a retaliatory court summons that could spell the destruction of his life’s accomplishments (his defense attorneys are also exemplary in this regard).
“The Life of Emile Zola” has a basis in history, but the story has been fictionized for the sake of entertainment. And the entertainment value is high, particularly as the picture highlights corruption of the highest kind and the need for the changing of unfair judicial practices; it’s one of the earliest courtroom dramas and military conspiracy films (and even political war movies), lending its themes and speeches to momentous civil rights stories and small, family court ordeals alike (from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Anatomy of a Murder” to “Evelyn” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Paths of Glory” and “A Few Good Men”). Its makeup and aging effects are also spectacular. Though its message is potent and its outcome significant, there’s a formulaic approach to the storytelling (despite its utilization as a template for other projects) that gives the production an overall dullness; the man and his achievements are more astounding than the portrayal and technical execution of his biography.
– Mike Massie