THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA is a 1937 American biographical film about
Émile Zola , played by
Paul Muni and directed by
William Dieterle . It has the distinction of being the second
biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture . It premiered at
* 1 Plot * 2 Cast * 3 Reception and interpretation * 4 Academy Nominations and Awards * 5 21st century controversy * 6 References * 7 External links
Set in the mid through late 19th century, it depicts Zola's
friendship with Post-Impressionist painter
Émile Zola (
Paul Muni ) shares a drafty Paris
attic with his friend, painter
Other successful books follow. Zola becomes rich and famous; he marries Alexandrine ( Gloria Holden ) and settles down to a comfortable life in his mansion. One day, his old friend Cézanne, still poor and unknown, visits him before leaving the city, and tells Zola that with his success he has become complacent, a far cry from the zealous reformer of his youth.
Meanwhile, a French secret agent steals a letter addressed to a military officer in the German embassy. The letter confirms there is a spy within the top French army staff. With little thought, the army commanders decide that Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut ) is the traitor, is courtmartialed and imprisoned on Devil\'s Island in then French Guyana .
Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O\'Neill ), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating the spy as Major Walsin-Esterhazy ( Robert Barrat ), but he is ordered by his superiors to remain silent to avert official embarrassment and is quickly reassigned to a distant post.
Years go by. Finally, Dreyfus's loyal wife Lucie ( Gale Sondergaard ) pleads with Zola to take up her husband's cause. Zola is reluctant to give up a comfortable life, but she brings forth new evidence to pique his curiosity. A letter is published in the newspaper accusing the army of covering up the monstrous injustice. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by military agents provocateurs .
As expected, he is brought up for libel . His attorney, Maitre Labori ( Donald Crisp ) does his best against the presiding judge's refusal to bring up the Dreyfus affair and the perjury committed by all the military witnesses, except for Picquart. Zola, found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, reluctantly accepts his friends' advice to avoid risk becoming a martyr and instead flee to England, to continue the campaign on behalf of Dreyfus.
A new administration finally admits that Dreyfus is innocent, those responsible for the coverup are dismissed or commit suicide, although Walsin-Esterhazy flees the country in disgrace. Zola dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty stove the night before the public ceremony in which Dreyfus is exonerated.
ACTOR CHARACTER OUTCOME REMARKS
Gloria Holden Alexandrine Zola
Gale Sondergaard Lucie Dreyfus
Donald Crisp Maitre Labori
Erin O\'Brien-Moore Nana
John Litel Charpentier
Henry O\'Neill Colonel Picquart
Louis Calhern Major Dort
Ralph Morgan Commander of Paris
Robert Barrat Major Walsin-Esterhazy
Harry Davenport Chief of Staff
Charles Richman M. Delagorgue
Gilbert Emery Minister of War
Walter Kingsford Colonel Sandherr
Paul Everton Assistant Chief of Staff
Montagu Love M. Cavaignac
Lumsden Hare Mr. Richards
Marcia Mae Jones Helen Richards
Florence Roberts Madame Zola, Zola's mother
Dickie Moore Pierre Dreyfus, Captain Dreyfus's son
Rolla Gourvitch Jeanne Dreyfus, Dreyfus's daughter
RECEPTION AND INTERPRETATION
Contemporary reviews were unanimous in their praise. Frank S. Nugent
The New York Times
Certain scenes have been interpreted in the context of the time as a
reaction to the increasing repression of
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS AND AWARDS
CATEGORY PERSON OUTCOME
Best Director William Dieterle Nominated
Best Writing, Screenplay Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine WON
Best Art Direction Anton Grot Nominated
Best Writing, Original Story Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg Nominated
Best Assistant Director Russ Saunders Nominated
21ST CENTURY CONTROVERSY
The film is among the subject films studied in two books published in 2013: Ben Urwand's The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, and Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939. Denby notes that Doherty provides more context for the studios' behavior, setting it against the political culture of the period. Urwand learned that Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, occasionally was allowed to review and make recommendations on films. But, in the same period, the studios set up an association office to develop a Production Code, directed by Will H. Hays , who appointed a Catholic layman, Joseph I. Breen as "censor-in-chief," who after 1934 had even more influence over movies. Denby found the studio heads acting as businessmen, who were sometimes overcautious and fearful of their place in American society.
* ^ Nugent, Frank S. (August 12, 1937). "Movie Review - The Life of
The New York Times