The Life of Emile Zola


2h 3m 1937
The Life of Emile Zola

Brief Synopsis

The famed writer risks his reputation to defend a Jewish army officer accused of treason.

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Historical
Biography
Release Date
Oct 2, 1937
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson (New York, 1928).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 3m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Synopsis

Struggling writer Emile Zola and painter Paul Cezanne share a drafty garret. Zola's mother gets him a job with a publisher enabling him to marry Alexandrine, but the couple are still very poor. When Zola's book The Confessions of Claude is published, its criticisms of city officials attract the attention of the police and cost him his job. Zola continues to write about corruption and the hard lives of the people, but there is not much interest in his books until he meets a prostitute, Nana, and writes her story. The publication of Nana makes Zola a success at last and each new book adds to his fame. Finally, it is announced that Zola is to receive the Legion of Honor. Cezanne visits the Zolas before he leaves for the South and warns Zola not to become fat and complacent in his work. Meanwhile, French army secrets have been passed to the Germans, and Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, has been accused of the crime. Although he protests his innocence and evidence points to Count Walsin-Esterházy, Dreyfus is convicted and sentenced to Devil's Island. Dreyfus' wife Lucie vows to clear her husband's name. She visits Zola to beg him to help her, but he sends her away, saying that his fighting days are over. However, he starts to read the evidence that Lucie has left behind and, remembering Cezanne's words, decides to come to Dreyfus' aid. He writes the famous "I Accuse" and is tried for libel. With public approval, Zola is found guilty and sentenced to prison, but he flees the country for England where he continues to speak out. Finally, the Dreyfus case is reopened and Zola comes home. As he sits up late one night writing, he inhales carbon monoxide gas from a faulty stove and dies before he has the pleasure of seeing Dreyfus reinstated with his full rank.

Photo Collections

The Life of Emile Zola - Lobby Card
Here is a lobby card from The Life of Emile Zola (1937), starring Paul Muni. Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.

Videos

Movie Clip

Trailer

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Genre
Drama
Historical
Biography
Release Date
Oct 2, 1937
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson (New York, 1928).

Technical Specs

Duration
2h 3m
Sound
Mono
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1

Award Wins

Best Picture

1937

Best Screenplay

1937

Best Supporting Actor

1937
Joseph Schildkraut

Best Writing, Screenplay

1938

Award Nominations

Best Actor

1937
Paul Muni

Best Art Direction

1937

Best Director

1937
William Dieterle

Best Score

1937

Best Sound

1937

Articles

The Life of Emile Zola


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
The Life Of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola

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

Quotes

At this solemn moment, in the presence of this tribunal, which is the representative of human justice, before France, before the whole world, I swear that Dreyfus is innocent! By all that I have won, by all that I have written to spread the spirit of France, I swear that he is innocent. May all that melt away; may my name perish if Dreyfus be not innocent. He is innocent.
- Emile Zola
Why didn't Picquart say anything?
- Emile Zola
Colonel Picquart is a good officer. He kept silent at the request of his superiors.
- Lucie Dreyfus
You mean they KNEW and they ordered him to suppress the truth? Why,that's monstrous!
- Emile Zola
What does it matter if an individual is shattered -- if only justice is resurrected?
- Emile Zola

Trivia

The film was shot in reverse order; Muni grew his own beard for the role, and it was trimmed and darkened as he proceeded to scenes where Zola is younger. His makeup took three and a half hours to apply each morning.

Notes

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 Émile Zola's articles, proved that Dreyfus had been convicted by papers which were forged by Major Esterházy 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 Josè Ferrer, who also starred as Dreyfus. The 1954 short documentary Zola, by French director Jean Zola also dealt with the case.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1937

Selected in 2000 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States 1937