The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

As the 1937 winner for Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola, is a film that leaves many more drags in time than pulsing moments of fascination and captivating action. For a film recording the life of one of France’s most public figures, The Life of Emile Zola fails to give the audience a sincere sense of the man, but instead presents a puffed-up sense of a public man trying to maintain a public influence.

Paul Muni in the titular role

What we know about Émile Zola, based on the first half of the film, is that he was prone to getting ill, lived in poverty, had a loving wife, and was friends with the painter Paul Cézanne. Eventually, he sells his first blockbuster novel, Nana, and suddenly Zola has enough money to write full-time. We, the audience, see his success build and build and then we are brought in to a conspiracy occurring within the French Army, where officer Alfred Dreyfus is accused and convicted of treason, purportedly because he is Jewish. Enter Émile Zola.

Joseph Schildkraut as Captain Dreyfus

Once Dreyfus is humiliated and sent to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement on a solitary South American island, Zola reenters the film as he takes up Dreyfus’s cause, having been convinced to do so by Lucie Dreyfus. Zola famously wrote his open letter “J’Accuse” about Dreyfus’s erroneous conviction, openly accusing the French government of anti-semitism. In sum, as a result, Zola was prosecuted and convicted of libel. Most importantly, Alfred Dreyfus eventually was exonerated of all crimes attributed to him due to the “J’Accuse” inquiry, and allowed to return home, with a return of his military rank and honors.

Quite simply, I accuse this film of having a disjointed execution. Yes, by the end we understand that Zola’s goal was to fight for justice, but only because of a blatant statement of such in his eulogy. Hollywood had done better by this point in 1937, and we all know it’s done better since.

The Life of Emile Zola (1937) 116 minutes. Directed by William Dieterle. Starring Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut.

About Amy L. Darnell

Teacher, scholar, student, wonderer, wanderer, fan, foe, friend, acquaintance, all of these and more, but ultimately just an Ohio daughter.
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