The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola
Paul Muni as Zola

'The Life of Emile Zola' is a biographical movie about the famous French author Émile Zola, focusing in particular on his involvement in the Dreyfus affair. The movie was directed by William Dieterle and was a follow-up to his earlier, highly successful film biography, 'The Story of Louis Pasteur' made in 1935. The movie stars Paul Muni, who also featured in, and won a Best Actor Award for 'The Story of Louis Pasteur', and also stars Gale Sondergaard, and Joseph Schildkraut.

The movie was a resounding critical success and performed well at the box-office. It received an incredible ten Academy Award nominations and won three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Joseph Schildkraut), and Best Screenplay.

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In 2000, 'The Life of Emile Zola' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The story is a fictionalised account of the life of best-selling author, Emile Zola, who writes a celebrated editorial called "J'Accuse" in defence of a Jewish French army officer convicted on false evidence and sent to Devil's Island. Although it is a story of the fight to free a Jew who was the victim of anti-Semitism and a massive military cover-up, there is no direct reference to Jews onscreen. It has been suggested that the Jewish movie moguls had no wish to bring undue publicity onto Jews at the time that Hitler's actions in Europe were beginning to be publicly known.

Zola's defense of Dreyfus makes him wide open to criminal prosecution and although he delivers a brilliant self-defense in court, which males for compelling cinema, he is found guilty. He flees to England, and continues railing against the corruption of the military establishment. He is successful in eventually forcing a retrial of Dreyfus, but dies in a freak accident due to a faulty stove the night before the public ceremony in which Dreyfus is exonerated.

'The Life of Emile Zola' deserves its status as a classic due mainly to Paul Muni's magnificent performance, most notably in the unforgettable courtroom summation scene and there are outstanding contributions too from Joseph Schildkraut as Dreyfus and Gale Sondergaard as his grief-stricken, faithful wife.

Main Cast

Paul Muni ... Émile Zola
Gloria Holden ... Alexandrine Zola
Gale Sondergaard ... Lucie Dreyfus
Joseph Schildkraut ... Captain Alfred Dreyfus
Donald Crisp ... Maitre Labori
Erin O'Brien-Moore ... Nana
John Litel ... Charpentier
Henry O'Neill ... Colonel Picquart
Morris Carnovsky ... Anatole France
Louis Calhern ... Major Dort
Ralph Morgan ... Commander of Paris
Robert Barrat ... Major Walsin-Esterhazy
Vladimir Sokoloff ... Paul Cézanne
Grant Mitchell ... Georges Clemenceau
Harry Davenport ... Chief of Staff
Robert Warwick ... Major Henry
Charles Richman ... M. Delagorgue
Gilbert Emery ... Minister of War
Walter Kingsford ... Colonel Sandherr
Paul Everton ... Assistant Chief of Staff
Montagu Love ... M. Cavaignac
Frank Sheridan ... M. Van Cassell
Lumsden Hare ... Mr. Richards
Marcia Mae Jones ... Helen Richards
Florence Roberts ... Madame Zola, Zola's mother
Dickie Moore ... Pierre Dreyfus
Rolla Gourvitch ... Jeanne Dreyfus


Director ... William Dieterle
Producer ... Henry Blanke
Production Company ... Warner Bros.
Story by ... Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
Screenplay ... Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald Geza Herczeg
Music (Score) ... Max Steiner
Format ... B & W
Distributed by United Artists
Release date ... August 11, 1937
Running time ... 123 minutes

Academy Awards

Three Wins:
Best Picture ... Warner Bros.
Best Supporting Actor ... Joseph Schildkraut
Best Screenplay ... Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald Geza Herczeg
Seven Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... William Dieterle
Best Actor ... Paul Muni
Best Writing, (Original Story) ... Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
Art Direction ... Anton Grot
Assistant Director ... Russ Saunders
Music (Scoring) ... Warner Bros. Dept. Head, Leo Forbstein (Score by Max Steiner)
Sound Recording ... Warner Bros., Nathan Levinson, Sound director