The first quarter of The Life of Emile Zola is a paint-by-numbers movie biography of the famed writer, condensing his early years into a few scenes while simultaneously providing little insight into Emile Zola the individual or explaining why we should care about him in the first place. It is only later that it becomes clear why these awkward early scenes were included; they may not have been presented in the most original fashion, but they provided necessary information to understand Zola's evolution. Once the film arrives at its true purpose, Zola's role in the historic Alfred Dreyfus affair, the film comes alive dramatically if not cinematically. The story of the Dreyfus affair is inherently compelling, and this is a solid (if not entirely factual) dramatization. From the beginning, the story leaves no doubt as to Dreyfus' innocence, and does not shy away from depicting the ruling officers as more concerned with preserving their power than with serving in the interest of France. The filmmakers do, however, shy away from pointing the finger at anti-Semitism, and that is the film's biggest failing. Only once does the film make any connection to anti-Semitism as the reason behind Dreyfus' persecution. Still, if the film is not an indictment of anti-Semitism, it is an indictment of mob mentality, as the easily manipulated nature of public opinion is ridiculed time and again. Paul Muni, acting under heavy makeup, is good as Zola, even if one never loses sight of the fact that one is watching a performance, and Joseph Schildkraut won an Oscar for playing Dreyfus. But the film is stolen by the group of actors playing the ruling officers, namely Robert H. Barrat, Louis Calhern, Robert Warwick, and especially Harry Davenport, who is cast completely against type as a scheming Chief of Staff.
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The second of Paul Muni's biographical films for Warner Bros., the Oscar-winning The Life of Emile Zola is by far the best, even allowing for the dramatic license taken with the material. When first we meet French novelist and essayist Zola, he is starving in a Parisian garret with his painter friend, Paul Cezanne. Each time Zola attempts to write "the truth," he is stymied by governmental censors. Still, he is able to achieve both fame and fortune with the publication of "Nana," an unardorned and best-selling tale of a prostitute (whom we can safely assume was not quite as likeable or attractive as Erin O'Brien-Moore, who plays the novel's "role model"). The lion's share of the film is devoted to Zola's attempts to clear the reputation of Army captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), who has been framed on a charge of treason by his superiors and condemned to Devil's Island. Publishing his famous manifesto "J'accuse," Zola leaves himself wide open for public condemnation and criminal prosecution. Though he delivers a brilliant self-defense in court, Zola is found guilty. Forced to flee to England, he continues railing against the unjust, corrupt military establishment, eventually forcing a retrial and exoneration of Dreyfus. Alas, Zola is killed in a freak accident at home before he can meet the liberated Dreyfus. At his funeral, Emile Zola is eulogized by Anatole France (Morris Carnovsky), who refers to the fallen crusader as "a moment of the conscience of man." For various reasons -- some dramatic, some legal -- the actual facts of "L'affaire Dreyfus" are altered by the Norman Reilly Raine/Heinz Herald/Geza Herczeg screenplay. The fact that Dreyfus was railroaded because he was Jewish is obscured; in fact, except for a very brief visual reference, the word "Jew" is never mentioned. Only those villains whose names were a matter of public record (Major Dort, Major Esterhazy) are specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. to avoid lawsuits from their descendants (remember that the events depicted in the film, most of which take place between 1894 and 1902, were still within living memory in 1937). As for Dreyfus himself, he was not freed and restored to rank in 1902, the year of Zola's death, but in 1906-after being found guilty again in an 1899 retrial (Dreyfus died in 1935, outliving everyone else involved in the case). These historical gaffes can be forgiven in the light of the film's overall message: that a single small, clear voice can fight City Hall. If for nothing else, The Life of Emile Zola deserves classic status due to Paul Muni's towering performance, most notably in the unforgettable summation scene: "By all that I have done for France, by my works -- by all that I have written, I swear to you that Dreyfus is innocent. May all that melt away -- may my name be forgotten, if Dreyfus is not innocent. He is innocent."
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|Source:||Warner Home Video|