The Life Of Emile Zola (1937): Movie Review + Analysis

Worthy Podcast
6 min readJun 18, 2021

Click on this link to find places to listen to Worthy Podcast and learn more about each Best Picture winner.

1937 marked the 10th Anniversary of the Academy Awards. When reflecting back on the first decade, the Best Picture winners mostly represent a progression forward in filmmaking practices. Whether it is new techniques in sound recording or expanding upon what you could do with a camera, you can see how films started to grow.

Unfortunately, the 10th Best Picture winner, The Life Of Emile Zola (1937), is not a great reflection on the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and where Best Picture winners should have been. It is a film that touches upon the French writer Emile Zola and how he came to be a part of the Alfred Dreyfus Affair in the late 19th Century. The film’s lack of technical merits, odd story structure and questionable behind the scenes intentions make it a hard film to praise and accept as a Best Picture winner.

The film was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures starring Paul Muni, Joseph Schildkraut and Gale Sondergaard. Muni had won the previous year’s Best Actor award for his performance in the biopic The Story Of Louis Pasteur (1936), which was directed by The Life Of Emile Zola director, William Dieterle. Gale Sondergaard is coming off her Best Supporting Actress performance from the film Anthony Adverse (1936).

Warner Bros. Pictures looked at the team of Muni and Dieterle as viable options to create their next big box office biopic. The historical Emile Zola played by Paul Muni was met with approval and the film seemed in theory that it would be a box office hit. However, it failed to even crack the top 10 of that year.

The big question then is how did a film that was not a popular film that has many modern controversies end up winning the Best Picture award? It’s a puzzling matter and there is not much to defend this win.

I want to leave the biggest issue for the end, but let’s start with something that is obvious from the start. The film is just not structured well. We open the film on a unconvincingly young Zola who is living with his artistic friend Paul Cezanne (played by Vladimir Sokoloff) as the two fend off the cold weather in Paris. The two are struggling to make something of their crafts, Zola a writer and Cezanne an artist. Zola finds success as he writes about the life of the French Underground, opening the public’s eye to that world.

We jump through time, getting a montage of Zola’s successful books until we reach Zola in an older age living a rich life, drastically different from the film’s opening. His friend Paul criticizes Zola of becoming a person they both vowed they would never be. Zola seemingly takes this to heart and it sets up what could be a storyline of Zola reconnecting with his younger self.

Instead, the film takes a huge pivot to start talking about the arrest of Alfred Dreyfus kicking off the real life Dreyfus Affair. An anti-Semitic action taken by the French army to accuse an innocent man of espionage. As someone who is not privy to this moment in history, it was puzzling to spend the first half hour of the film on Zola and then jump to essentially a completely different film. On top of all this, the scenes lack anything compelling to really sink your teeth into. It lacks the entertainment value that film should have.

The next issue with the film is the lack of any kind of technical merit or innovation. It’s been a common theme in the previous Best Picture winners where the filmmakers are creative with camera angles or edit choices to help drive the story. With The Life Of Emile Zola, Dieterle does nothing to further the art form, it just goes through the motions. The acting by Muni is decent but I am not floored by it. The only good performance was that of Alfred Dreyfus portrayed by Joseph Schildkraut. He ended up walking away with the Best Supporting Actor award for his role, but his screen time pales in comparison to that of Muni’s.

The rest of the film focuses on Zola defending Dreyfus with his editorial “J’Accuse” and how he was charged with libel by the French government. The courtroom scene is sort of interesting but you are taken out of it because of the way the French judicial system is set up. Coming at it from an American perspective, I am not as fully aware of how the French courts work. It is confusing and you are also trying to stay locked in but the dialogue is again just plain boring.

Finally, the biggest issue of the film and why it ultimately fails, is the exclusion of the most important aspect to the Dreyfus Affair. We know for a fact that Alfred Dreyfus was arrested for being Jewish. He never committed espionage and was framed by his own Army for being Jewish. This was well known at the moment of the events and decades after when the film was made. The film ignores this and makes only one mention of Dreyfus’ religion when they show his army paperwork and it just mentions the word Jew next to his religion.

This is a slap in the face to many people, including the Jewish people who worked in Hollywood including Paul Muni. The filmmakers decision to exclude the real life anti-Semitism in this case is linked to one specific thing. That being the supposed relationship between Hollywood and Nazi Germany. There is evidence provided by Australian writer Ben Urwand and American writer Thomas Doherty that explores this relationship. They both bring up evidence that contextualizes Nazi involvement in filmmaking. Hollywood’s reasoning to censor films to appease Nazi’s was rooted in keeping the German market and audiences. It’s a greedy move that ultimately harms and hurts Jewish people.

When watching and critiquing the film you can’t look past this obvious omission. It takes away so much of what the Dreyfus Affair was about, which was battling anti-semitism in France. You could argue that Hollywood did not know what the Nazi’s were up to, but anti-semitism was not unique to World War II or the Nazi’s. The choice to do this gives much less credibility to the filmmakers and even Warner Bros. Pictures themselves who supposedly worked with Nazi’s just to make more money.

Overall, The Life Of Emile Zola (1937) is a disappointing moment in the Academy’s history. They awarded a film their top award and even gave 10 nominations, the most at the time, that lacks any truth. I know modern critics are always harping on finding the truth in film, but this is far from excusable. The lack of facts creates a film that has no entertainment value and a story that barely keeps you engaged. There is a lot more to the film to cover but it pales in comparison to the above issues. You can hear more on our discussion and critique on the film as well as the 10th Academy awards in the link below.

Click on this link to find places to listen to Worthy Podcast and learn more about each Best Picture winner.

Is The Life of Emile Zola a true story?

Yes, The Life Of Emile Zola is based on historical events surrounding the Dreyfus Affair in the 19th Century.

Who was Cezanne’s best friend?

Paul Cezanne, played by Vladimir Sokoloff, is the best friend of Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni.

Who killed Zola?

Emile Zola was not killed, he had died from a carbon monoxide exposure after his fireplace went faulty. There is speculation that he was murdered but his death was ultimately deemed accidental.

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