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The real life Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer of Jewish heritage who was convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil's Island. An investigation, inspired by mile Zola's articles, proved that Dreyfus had been convicted by papers which were forged by Major Esterhzy and Lieut. Col. Henry. After his conviction was set aside in 1906, Dreyfus was restored to rank in the army and received the Legion of Honor. A news item in Hollywood Reporter dated February 17, 1937 notes that Bette Davis was interested in the role of Nana. According to modern sources, Warner Bros. did not want her to play such a small role. News items in Hollywood Reporter note that Dorothy Stickney and Josephine Hutchinson were considered for the role of Lucie. According to a press release, the studio built fifty different sets including the Pantheon in Paris, the Ecole Militaire, Les Halles and Zola's apartment. The Devil's Island scenes were filmed on location on Goff Island in Laguna Beach.
Muni's niece, Dolores Weisenfreund, made her theatrical debut in this film. The film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, won awards for Best Supporting Actor, (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Screenplay and for Best Picture, the first Warner Bros. film to be so honored. It was chosen as best picture by the N.Y. Film Critics who also named Muni as best actor. The National Board of Review, Film Daily and New York Times picked the film as one of the year's best. According to Hal Wallis's autobiography, Matthew Josephson, author of a biography of Zola, charged Warner Bros. with plagarism. Several scenes were reshot because they were thought to be too close to Josephson's book. Nonetheless, Warner Bros. bought the rights to the book and mentioned it in the credits. Then a German playwright named Hans Rehfisch claimed that his play The Dreyfus Affair had been stolen by Heinz Herald. Herald admitted familiarity with the play and eventually Rehfisch received a small cash settlement. Modern sources mention the controversial nature of the film which, although it dealt with anti-Semitism, never mentioned the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish. It was not shown in France until the fiftieth anniversary of Zola's death in 1952 and even then it required the consent of four French ministries before it could be shown.
In 1931, Columbia released the British film, The Dreyfus Case, based on the Rehfisch play, which starred Cedric Hardwicke and was directed by F. W. Kraemer and Milton Rosmer. In 1958 M-G-M released I Accuse!, based on the Dreyfus case and the non-fiction book by Nicholas Halasz, with a screenplay by Gore Vidal. That film was directed by Jos Ferrer, who also starred as Dreyfus. The 1954 short documentary Zola, by French director Jean Zola also dealt with the case.