The Life of Emile Zola

by Glenn Erickson Dec 19, 2023

Does it Creak?  Not at all. Paul Muni brings this revered biographical drama to life, even if it’s less about Zola and more about the notorious Dreyfus Affair, the kind of subject normally too touchy for Hollywood. Warners’ prestige offering nabbed a well earned Best Picture Oscar — everything connected to the crucial trial is riveting, with Muni contributing an oratory tour-de-force. Plus winning performances from Gale Sondergaard, Gloria Holden, Joseph Schildkraut, Donald Crisp and Vladimir Sokoloff — and some interesting disc extras.

The Life of Emile Zola
Warner Archive Collection
1937 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 116 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date August 29, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Vladimir Sokoloff, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern, Ralph Morgan, Robert Barrat, Grant Mitchell, Harry Davenport, Robert Warwick, Montagu Love, Florence Roberts, Dickie Moore.
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Director: Anton Grot
Set Designer: Harper Goff
Costumes Milo Anderson, Ali Hubert
Film Editor: Warren Low
Original Music: Max Steiner
Screenplay by Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg story by Herald & Herczeg partly based on a book by Matthew Josephson
Associate Producer Henry Blanke
Executive Producers Jack L. Warner, Hal B. Wallis
Directed by
William Dieterle

Warner Brothers’ prestige production paid off with a pile of Oscar nominations and wins. The studio’s second big-budget biography after the previous year’s The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola solidified Paul Muni’s position as one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. By now Muni’s association with the notorious pre-Code Scarface was a thing of the past — stage actor Muni raised Warner Bros.”dignified’ image closer to that of MGM, which had borrowed him for the equally classy Pearl S. Buck adaptation The Good Earth. Back again was the sensitive William Dieterle, the director of the most artful WB picture of the decade, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“You’ll be hissed you’ll be hissed You’ll be History.”

With his string of biographies, Muni would soon be known as ‘that guy in a beard playing famous dead people.’ Later critics talked about Pasteur,  Zola, and Muni’s  Juarez as distortions of history, and in the case of Zola the charges are true — Emile Zola’s on-screen demise is an almost complete fabrication. When the show is mentioned now, it’s often to remark that, although the film’s main subject is history’s most famous legal case of anti-Semitism, the word Jew is never spoken. *

Yet nobody’s lining up to Cancel Zola, even if the word-that-cannot-be-spoken pushes a big issue into the shadows. Production Code Hollywood promoted church values, profits and the status quo, not social justice. It turned a blind eye to racial and ethnic prejudice. Only Warners made exposés about lynching and white supremacists, and to go that far they first had to remove Jewish and African-American issues from the mix.

Zola’s literary accounts of lower-class French life — Nana,  Thérèse Raquin emphasized naturalistic squalor as created by environment and heredity. The movie omits most of that content to present the expected rise of Monsieur Zola from pauper to wealthy best-selling author, and his idealistic crusade against a criminal injustice. He was a genuine historical hero, and his story is truly uplifting.


Paul Muni doesn’t begin Zola wearing a full beard. Freezing in winter in the drafty garret he shares with artist Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), aspiring writer Emile Zola (Paul Muni) gets a reprieve when his mother finds him a clerk’s job in a publishing house. In a rapid series of vignettes, he loses that job over his first book, a criticism of public corruption that angers influential people at City Hall. Such setbacks only fuel Emile’s drive — he sees poor people suffering in buildings without fire codes, and wonders at the homeless women living on the banks of the Seine. He convincess the prostitute Nana (Erin O’Brien Moore) to tell him her life story, and the resulting book becomes a smash best-seller. Emile Zola’s wealth allows him to live well with his loyal wife Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) and puts him on the road to more exposés of social injustices and corruption in high places.

Remaining essentially humble and uncomplicated, Zola angers the French military with his book The Downfall, which blames military mismanagement and graft for La Débâcle of the Franco-Prussian War. A graphic montage is a parade of successful novels. Twenty minutes into the picture Zola is already fat and famous. The soulful Paul Cezanne chides him for not staying ‘the hungry, deserving artist,’    but we know that Emile’s greater destiny lies ahead.

Zola leaves the story for a full fifteen minutes, while the notorious The Dreyfus Affair is introduced. Evidence of a spy-traitor in the French high command points immediately to Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) but prejudice against ‘outsiders’ leads the image-obsessed army brass to railroad Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a loyal officer and family man. Convicted for espionage by a closed military court, Dreyfus is condemned to Devil’s Island. His distraught wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) to left to fight a losing legal battle.


Zola at first avoids a personal meeting with Lucie Dreyfus, and only becomes involved when told that the Army has silenced and banished intelligence officer Colonel Piquart (Henry O’Neill). Lucie insists that it’s a cover-up, that Piquart knew Dreyfus was innocent. The generals have conducted a hollow investigation to clear Walsin-Esterhazy. They will later forge documents to solidify the frame around Dreyfus.


Turning the case into a personal crusade, Zola uses his voice and influence to smash the wall of secrecy and obstruction. His famous open letter to the President of the Republic forces the Army to bring him to trial for libel — giving him a national platform to speak the truth. Zola’s attorney Labori (Donald Crisp) is hamstrung by the court’s prejudice in favor of the army. The defense is not allowed to even reference the Dreyfus Affair at all. Madame Dreyfus cannot testify, and Esterhazy is permitted to refuse to answer questions. The generals cite the (forged) incriminating letter, but are not made to produce it. The President goes on record against Zola. The Army’s Major Dort (Louis Calhern) hires thugs and provocateurs to create a hostile mob outside the courthouse.

Throughout the fiery proceedings, the defendant Zola sits patiently, biding his time . . . it’s all part of his bigger plan. *  Labori’s outraged protests against the biased court are powerful, as we hold our breath in anticipation of the Main Event, Zola’s oratory onslaught. It’s up to Emile to sway the jury away from blind national pride, back to the side of reason. He does so in a crucial five-minute speech. Againt the official lies, Zola puts everything into a plea to take him at his word that he’s telling the truth, that Drefus is innocent. The speech is a great showcase of actorly grandstanding. Most of it is one unbroken camera take that’s a full 4 and ½ minutes in duration.


This Zola is passionately inflamed by the subjects he writes about, even if Hollywood reduces it all to ‘Simple Stories for Simple People.’ The movie zips through Zola’s ‘life’ to get to his heroic defense in an epochal courtroom trial. Muni’s Emile Zola is more of a construction than a character, so it’s up to Muni to bring him to life. When we first see Zola, he’s already speaking in poetic phrases. By the finish he’s coining ‘great words’ left and right while his lovely Alexandrine hovers approvingly. The tone is actually not condescending – considering what Hollywood normally does to history, some of the complexity of the Dreyfus Affair is retained . . . minus the underlying quicksand of the anti-Semitism issue.

Zola’s moral / political outrage is a mellowed version of Warner Bros.’ pre-Code ferocity, when movies like Wild Boys of the Road all but called for an American Revolution. Zola references political street thuggery, book burning, governmental crimes and a potential lynch mob, all scenes that a 1937 audience would associate with news coming from Germany. In his book Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign Against Nazism, author Michael E. Birdwell asserts that Warner Bros. purposely placed anti-Nazi themes into its shows. The film industry in general overlooked Nazi crimes for fear of losing the German market, and deferred to an anti-FDR isolationist movement growing in Washington. The leading example of Warners’ commitment is The Adventures of Robin Hood. No one mistook its call to oppose authoritarian tyranny. Birdwell states that Warners conferred with the President of France, who asked that the ‘Jewish question’ be minimized — France was still split on the issue, and unity was important in the face of the German threat.

Replacing Anti-Semitism with Christian Persecution.

Zola regards the mob, and can only utter one word: Cannibals!  At different points in the story both Dreyfus and Zola are referred to as martyrs, with direct allusions to Jesus Christ. Someone says that all Dreyfus needs at his public humiliation is a Crown of Thorns. The only controversy that Zola created was a lack of enthusiasm from France, which banned the movie for a full fifteen years. In truth Hollywood would have had difficulty making a detailed account of a similar American travesty of justice. A movie about The Hollywood Ten would never have been considered. Of course, no Zola-like savior stood up in their defense.

Armed with a screenplay that never slows down, Paul Muni makes the most of his tailor-made role. He was awarded with his fourth Best Actor nomination, having just won the previous year for The Story of Louis Pasteur. Muni is everything we want to see in the idealist-firebrand Zola, a humanist dedicated to higher ideals. But a moment or two are set aside to show his vulnerabilities, the best of which is the lecture from wise old Cezanne. Vladimir Sokoloff specialized in such scenes, even when dispensing peasant homilies in The Magnificent Seven.


 This is probably the most famous film role of Joseph Schildkraut, a stage legend who sometimes resented not being accepted as a leading man in the sound era. He became a specialist in odd character parts, and perhaps took roles that leading men didn’t want — Herod in Cleopatra, Mr. Bannerjee in The Rains Came, and the only unlovable character in Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. Schildkraut’s performance as Dreyfus would win him a Supporting Actor Oscar.

 The show is also a highlight for Gale Sondergaard, if not her finest acting showcase. Lucie Dreyfus’s contribution is all in one key, a desperate but dignified agony over the injustice visited on her husband. Sondergaard certainly never looked more beautiful. She was perhaps not nominated because she had won the Best Supporting Actress award the previous year for Anthony Adverse.

Dipping down the cast list, Erin O’Brien-Moore makes a strong impression as the ‘model’ for Zola’s book of Nana.    The character is lent some dignity; we assume that Zola’s high literary reputation is what persuaded the censors to allow the flight of streetwalkers in a police raid. Of course, they aren’t specifically identified as such by word or deed, even if they scurry for cover at the sight of the gendarmes.


The villains are mostly in uniform. Harry Davenport specializd in kindly editors and judges, yet is the nastiest of the generals. Louis Calhern fared well as hiss-worthy heels, as proven in both Sweet Adeline (1934) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950). The other officers are harder to judge on sight, like Henry O’Neill’s principled whistleblower. Morris Carnovsky is brought in at the curtain for a eulogy. Grant Mitchell plays Georges Clemenceau, the publisher of Zola’s J’Accuse — and a future Prime Minister of France. In the film he takes an active part in Zola’s defense.

Of course, there’s always beautiful Gloria Holden, our favorite as Dracula’s Daughter. She mainly gets to act charming in Zola, and it’s a treat to see her frequent warm smiles, something not stressed in horror films.

The finale earns its right to nominate Zola for Movie History Sainthood. Realizing that his time is limited, Zola proclaims that he’s on the verge of solving even bigger problems for humanity. He sees it all and has the answers, but fate stills his famous pen. His final claim is that he has a cure for War — a screenwriter’s gesture toward a 1937 audience already feeling war jitters. The Life of Emile Zola is a history lesson about a great man to admire. It’s worthwhile and inspiring, even with a few edges rounded off the truth.



The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Life of Emile Zola is a fine remastering of the studio’s Prestige offering for 1937. Tony Gaudio’s silvery images look immaculate in HD video. Director Dieterle had a nearly invisible style, so when a giant close-up of Gale Sondergaard or Joseph Schildkraut appears, it really makes an impact. The beefy restored audio emphasizes clarity in the many dialogue and speech scenes; Max Steiner’s handsome score mostly stays out of the way, refraining from jumping in with cliché French cues.

The radio broadcast sponsored by Lux soap is from 1939, which is way its introduction includes a mention of Paul Muni in Juarez. One of the chapter stops takes the listener to the mid-point break, where Leslie Howard introduces director William Dieterle. We get to hear Dieterle’s cultured German accent — Hollywood had some world-class artists on the payroll back then. When asked about historical accuracy (was it a big topic of discussion back then?), Dieterle defends the ‘minor rearrangement’ of facts that make the movie better.

Two short subjects are included, both by Lloyd French, originally a Hal Roach director. Taking the Count is the seventh of nine ‘Joe Palooka’ shorts starring Robert Norton. It’s a passable curiosity. Mal Hallett and His Orchestra doesn’t show up in the IMDB, but several other Lloyd French musical shorts do. It’s a mellow eight minutes with a ‘College of Swing’ premise. Some good dancing is on view, and the songs include Whiting and Mercer’s Too Marvelous for Words.

It appears that Paul Muni, or somebody, didn’t want his poster image to be of yet another old man in a beard. Thus the poster style retained for the disc cover gives us a generic Muni portrait without a period costume.

Roman Polanski filmed a version of the Dreyfus story in 2019: J’Accuse, aka An Officer and a Spy.  There are apparently no home video releases with English-language options. I believe Polanski’s last major release in the U.S. was 2010’s The Ghost Writer.  He’s made 5 more films since. I wonder if his version has an autobiographical edge.

Written with an assist from correspondent “B.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Life of Emile Zola
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Lux Radio version from 1939
Short Subjects Taking the Count (Joe Palooka) and  Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (Swing Music)
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case

December 17, 2023

*  The word Jew isn’t spoken, but it is written once, in a close-up of Dreyfus’ war record. The camera insert points it out, in fact.

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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Gerry Reiss

Paul Muni’s great performance in 1933’s “The World Changes” is still MIA. Covering three generations of a family based on the Swift meat packing dynasty, Warner Bros. filled the movie with great supporting actors. Mary Astor’s role as Muni’s wife going insane is one-of-a-kind. But the movie’s attack on Wall Street grifters at the end won it no friends. reCAPTCA, for the last time, I’m not a robot.

Edward Sullivan

There’s a Chekhovian reference to The Life of Emile Zola in Frank Darabont’s film The Majestic. ‘Wish more people would view The Majestic with an open mind and the hint not to be put off by surficial homages to Frank Capra and Preston Sturges – there’s a LOT more going on than the backbone story… (Both Joe Dante’s Matinee and Darabont’s The Majestic are movies paying tribute to movies’ and local cinemas’ capacity to inspire, motivate and help weave the fabric of communities…)

Last edited 7 months ago by Edward Sullivan
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