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Biographies were big box-office in the Hollywood of the '30s, with George Arliss taking the title roles in Disraeli (1929) and Alexander Hamilton (1931) at Warner Bros. When the elderly Brit switched to Fox, Warner Brothers took a chance on their top dramatic star, Paul Muni, in The Story of Louis Pasteur (1937), which brought him international acclaim and an Oscar® for Best Actor.
The idea for a film about novelist Emile Zola and his defense of the court-martialed army officer Alfred Dreyfus, a victim of military cover-ups and anti-Semitism, came from European playwrights Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg. They presented their story to producer-director Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount Pictures, but he knew the only man for the lead was Muni, so he helped them take the story to Warner Brothers. Producer Henry Blanke sold the idea to studio head Jack Warner, then assigned studio writer Norman Reilly Rain to help the story's writers turn it into a screenplay. Although the film bore clear parallels to Hitler's persecution of the Jews in Germany, they managed to tell the story without ever using the word "Jew."
Muni spent four weeks with make-up artist Perc Westmore to come up with the right look for the character through four different stages in his life. They decided that Muni should grow his own beard for the role. And since Zola's beard had grown fuller through his life, they convinced the studio to shoot the story backwards, so Muni could trim the beard as they moved into earlier stages of the author's life.
On the set, Muni drove himself mercilessly. For the big trial scene - a six-and-a-half minute speech done in one take - he insisted on repeated retakes even after director William Dieterle was satisfied. At day's end, he completed a perfect take, winning applause from the crew. But the next day he asked to do it again.
All the hard work paid off- The Life of Emile Zola got a standing ovation at its first preview, and prompted the New York Times's critic to call it "The finest historical film ever made and the greatest screen biography." Not only was the film a top performer at the box office, but it captured the New York Film Critics Awards for Best Picture and Best Actor.
When the Oscar® nominations were announced, The Life of Emile Zola became the first film to win ten nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (stage star Joseph Schildkraut, who played Dreyfus) and Best Screenplay. Although the film would win for Best Picture and Screenplay, Muni and Schildkraut were convinced they couldn't win, so they planned to stay away from the ceremonies. Muni was right; Best Actor went to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous. But Schildkraut was awakened from a sound sleep by a call from an Academy® representative informing him that he would soon be announced as the year's Best Supporting Actor. He made it to the Biltmore Hotel in time to accept the award. Ironically, he would never make another film for Warner Bros.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: William Dieterle
Screenplay: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, based on the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Costume Design: Milo Anderson, Ali Hubert
Film Editing: Warren Low
Original Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Paul Muni (Emile Zola), Gale Sondergaard (Lucie Dreyfus), Joseph Schildkraut (Capt. Alfred Dreyfus), Gloria Holden (Alexandrine Zola), Donald Crisp (Maitre Labori)
BW-117m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller