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The Life of Emile Zola

Posted on the 25 September 2015 by Christopher Saunders

The Life of Emile Zola

"Truth is on the march, and nothing will stop it."

Paul Muni had a remarkable string of films in the 1930s, mixing socially conscious dramas (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) with biopics (Juarez). He followed his Oscar-winning turn in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) with The Life of Emile Zola (1937), a Best Picture winner that holds up remarkable well.
Emile Zola (Paul Muni) rises from poverty to riches writing scandalous novels and critiquing French officials. By the 1890s he's middle-aged and comfortable in Paris, until events explode his complacency. When the French army convicts Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) of treason, Zola's importuned by Dreyfus's wife (Gale Sondergaard) to attest his innocence. Zola publishes the famous J'Accuse article, accusing the French government of miscarrying justice. This leads to a sensational libel charge, where institutional corruption's tried alongside Zola.
Despite its title, The Life of Emile Zola isn't a true biopic. William Dieterle and a trio of screenwriters move briskly through Zola's early years, freezing in an apartment with Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) and begging for cash. These scenes flesh out Zola's character in telling vignettes, from his encounter with a prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) inspiring Nana, to The Downfall's satire of the Franco-Prussian War. These scenes contrast his investment in social justice with his growing complacency; he becomes a pot-bellied, bearded bourgeois unengaged in society.
After this economical background, Zola plunges into the Dreyfus Affair. Admittedly, Dieterle neuters the subject: anti-Semitism's reduced to a momentary shot of Dreyfus's dossier. In recent years, this elision has generated controversy. Some writers claim that Jack Warner, usually comfortable with social messages, felt skittish about spotlighting Jewish persecution. Others claim that fear of alienating Nazi Germany prompted this. If the latter seems improbable, consider that Fritz Lang's Man Hunt was nearly banned as a "hate film."
Nonetheless, Zola's angry speechmaking conveys the desired outrage. The French government railroads an innocent man to preserve their "honor"; they rig Zola's trial by silencing witnesses, excluding mention of Dreyfus and having agitators rouse violence. Despite his speechmaking, the Naturalist stands little chance against state machinery. Zola frames its hero as a Classic Hollywood Martyr, winning a moral victory by opposing the State. He loses in court but sways public opinion, leading to Dreyfus's exoneration.
Paul Muni isn't remembered as a great actor, yet one can't fault his chameleon-like performance here. Muni makes a brilliant transition between young artist and aged idealist, culminating in some show-stopping oratory. Joseph Schildkraut's emotionally-rent Dreyfuss outshines Jose Ferrer's stiff portrayal in I Accuse!, with a fraction of his screentime; Gale Sondergaard plays his luminous, devoted wife. Vladimir Sokoloff (The Magnificent Seven) steals the early scenes with wistful self-deprecation. Donald Crisp (Jezebel) gets a standout role as Zola's attorney.
In many ways, The Life of Emile Zola codified what's now termed "Oscar bait." An important subject rendered through historical allegory, featuring an A-list actor in an unrecognizable role. Even so, Zola's high-intensity drama and great acting mark it as a classic.

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