1937: The Life of Emile Zola

  • Production Company: Warner Bros.
  • Year Released: 1937
  • Directed By: William Dieterle
  • Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard
  • Expect to Pay: $4-15

In 1894, Captain Alfred Dreyfuss of the French Army was convicted of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana for apparently leaking French military secrets to the German Empire. That might have been the end of it, except that Dreyfuss was innocent of all crimes. Two years later, new evidence appeared in regards to Dreyfuss’s innocence that was not released to the public at first. The French military, fearing scandal over the fact that they had unjustly sentenced the wrong man, tried to hush it up. They might have succeeded had Dreyfuss’s wife not appealed to famous novelist Emile Zola. In his scathing article, “J’Accuse,” Zola pressured the courts to reopen the case. Zola was eventually sentenced to spend a year in prison for sedition. He instead fled to England, beyond the jurisdiction of France, where he continued to write about Dreyfuss’s innocence. Eventually, the truth prevailed, and Dreyfuss was released in 1906, exonerated of all charges. There were many reasons why this breach of justice happened. However, one of the main reasons was that Dreyfuss was a Jew in a time when anti-Semitism ran rampant in France.

This event, known as the Dreyfuss Affair to history, is the subject of the 1937 Best Picture winner, The Life of Emile Zola, which is the first full biopic to win a Best Picture Oscar. After the description I just gave you, one would think that this film would be at least entertaining to some degree, right? Well, no. It’s not. In fact, I shut it off with 40 minutes left, went to bed, and finished it the next morning.

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First, some positives. The music by Max Steiner is as spectacular as ever (though it must also be said that this is not one of his best efforts). Paul Muni as Emile Zola turns in a pretty good performance. His eyes and his facial mannerisms sell the character quite well. He reminded me a lot of an older college professor who means well, but is often quite absent-minded due to thinking about the nature of the universe. As a matter of fact, all of the actors turn in pretty solid performances.

However, that’s about all the nice things I have to say about this movie. After its near two-hour run time, I still have scant idea who Emile Zola was as a persona other than an interesting footnote in history. This film had the exact same problem that The Theory of Everything had. In that movie, if it weren’t for my previous knowledge of the work and research of Steven Hawking, I would have no idea why he was famous even after watching a movie about his life. The Life of Emile Zola also has pacing issues.

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Paul Muni is excellent as the lead. 

A great deal of it glacially slow, and there’s not enough there to really fully understand the monumental events of his life as a result. Too much time is spent dealing with his rise that the Dreyfuss Affair has to be explained in about an hour. In The Great Ziegfeld, I thought the film could have done with some pruning. Here, I think the opposite might have done the film wonders. I wanted to know more about what happened, but the film could not show us everything it should have. If this film had at least an extra half-hour, it might have been a much stronger piece. Sure, there is a chance that might have made the pace even worse, but in my opinion, it would have been worth it to have the full story told.

So if the film is boring and not very interesting, how the hell did it win Best Picture? Once again, we must turn to the events of the real world. Four years had passed in Germany since Adolf Hitler rose to power. His fascist regime had put many hardships and restrictions on the Jewish population. Hollywood, which was founded mostly by enterprising and eager Jewish men, looked at the chaos and devastation in Europe with disgust, fear and confusion on what to do about. Everyone except Warner Bros.

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“What’s that you say, ho?”

This film, in its own way, is a message about combating real oppression whenever we see it, lest another Dreyfuss affair happens. Little did they realize just how much worse the situation for Jews in Germany would get before it was all over. Regardless, the Academy saw it as a bold and needed message in an uncertain world. It was also subject to some form of censorship, as all references to the word “Jew” were removed from the script before shooting. So what we’re left with is a vague message about the glories of justice and how awful oppression is without any real context. It was enough for audiences and the Academy in 1937, but for modern audiences today, it’s a boring slog.

In short, The Life of Emile Zola is, in my opinion, the world’s first instance of Oscar bait. It was obviously made for the awards circuit and not much else. As it stands, it’s a rather interesting piece of curious history for film buffs or mad people such as myself. Other than those specific niches, I can’t in good honesty recommend this film to anyone. There are plenty other excellent films from the 1930s that are far more worthy of your time.

1938’s Best Picture was You Can’t Take it With You. See you then!

Order The Life of Emile Zola here.

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