Rating: 2½ stars (out of 4)
The Life of Emile Zola (1937): Dir. William Dieterle. Written by: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, and Geza Herczeg, from a story by Herald and Herczeg. Based upon the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson. Starring: Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut, Donald Crisp, Gale Sondergaard, and Gloria Holden. Unrated. Running time: 116 minutes.
Continuing the Academy’s sudden infatuation with historical biopics, Zola represents the work of a man fighting for good in late nineteenth/early twentieth century France. Think of him as a man more serious-minded than Florenz Ziegfeld.
From a young, jobless idealist sharing a Paris flat with painter Paul Cezanne, to an old idealist defending an innocent man, the film moves fleetly through Zola’s life, but always focuses on his dedication to truth. The film’s more famous scenes center on the Dreyfus Affair, in which artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of selling French intelligence secrets to the Germans and sentenced to lifetime imprisonment in French Guiana.
Even as new evidence comes to light which seems to accuse a different officer, military leaders dismiss it in order to save face. Zola writes a famous essay “J’Accuse!”, slamming French military leaders for their cover-up, and ultimately paving the way for Dreyfus’s exoneration.
While admirable for its views on human justice and decency, the film stays preachy throughout—we get a morality tale rather than a realistic biography. Still, the film’s earnestness doesn’t necessarily dampen its ability to hold interest.
Paul Muni, renowned for his immersive qualities, plays the French writer like he’s the only one on screen. Every word from Zola’s mouth sounds like ripe material for a pamphlet. But the film romanticizes and glorifies the man, while shirking away from his flaws. To be fair, Zola does express initial skepticism at Dreyfus’s innocence, but that hardly lasts long.
Most of the supporting players feel less like characters and more like audience members for soapbox lectures. As such, the film is definitely watchable, and usually engaging, but not exactly groundbreaking.
Next film: You Can’t Take It With You, 1938