The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Director: William Dieterle
Screenwriters: Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, and Norman Reilly Raine

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As part of its 31 Days of Oscar series, Turner Classic Movies aired the Best Picture winner for 1937 last night: The Life of Emile Zola. Not only was the film honored as the Outstanding Production, as the award was called in 1937, but it beat out eight other films for the award. If I had read the nominees before seeing the picture, I might have wondered whether the Academy was again looking to be high-minded in its choice—after all, the incredible The Awful Truth and the noteworthy A Star Is Born and The Good Earth were also in contention, plus a couple of my personal favorites, Lost Horizon and Stage Door. Now, having seen Zola, I must agree that it was a very worthy winner for its year—or any year.

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Like any self-respecting biopic, Zola creates fictions from real details, such as the friendship between Zola and Paul Cezanne, and spins them to dramatic purpose. The film opens with the impoverished Zola (Paul Muni) and Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) sharing a drafty Paris garret. To keep warm, Zola tears apart the bourgeois novels lining a shelf and burns the pages in their potbelly stove; what they were doing in the home of such a literary purist as Zola is never explored, nor need it be. This act of destruction and the presence of Cezanne are devices used to establish Zola’s young idealism and link him back to it after he becomes rich and famous.

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Zola’s mother (Florence Roberts) and his fiancee Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) come to the flat and inform Zola that he has been offered a job as a clerk in a publishing company. He now feels able to marry Alexandrine and establish a home for them, but he still barely pays the bills on his meager earnings. One night, as Zola and Cezanne share a dinner out, a prostitute seeks shelter at their table from the police, who are making one of their periodic sweeps of the Pigalle district. Zola hears Nana’s (Erin O’Brien-Moore) sad story and turns it into his first bestseller, Nana, a racy but sympathetic look at the problems of the poor and outcast. He brings a copy of the book to her stuffed with a share of his royalties and his profuse thanks.

His accounts of social injustice continue for a time, but eventually cease. Zola produces one hit after another, shorthanded in the film by showing the covers of each book in succession, and segueing into a visit from Cezanne to Zola’s mansion. Zola is eager to show off his expensive objets d’art to Cezanne, who merely announces that he is leaving Paris and does not intend to write. “Artists should remain poor,” he says in quiet admonishment to the complacent Zola. Again, we are made to feel the prick of conscience that the fictional Cezanne represents.

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At about this time, career soldier Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is accused of treason for smuggling Army secrets to the Prussians. He maintains his innocence but is convicted and transported to Devil’s Island for life. Several years of fruitless attempts to exonerate her husband have Dreyfus’ wife (Gale Sondergaard) appeal to Zola to intercede. Now a respected man of letters soon to be elected to membership in the Académie Française, Zola rejects her petition by saying that his rabble-rousing days are over. Yet he finds himself pouring over the documents that she says prove her husband’s innocence and the guilt of another officer, Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat). Zola looks at the letter about the Académie Française and predictably tears it in half.

Zola begins a campaign to exonerate Dreyfus and bring the real spy and the conspirators in the cover-up to justice when he goes to the newspapers and reads his famous tract J’Accuse, which is quoted in part in the film. He courts a slander trial, which eventuates, in hopes of bringing the case back into the public consciousness, but the court will not allow Dreyfus’ court martial to be mentioned. Zola loses the trial, which was heavily slanted by the Army and the courts to go against him, but escapes to England to avoid prison and continues to write articles critical of the Army and the courts. A new French government brings in reforms and reopens the Dreyfus case. Eventually, Dreyfus’ conviction is overturned, and he returns to Paris, where he is restored to his family and military career. Zola never meets Dreyfus, having died of carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty heating stove in his study the night before they were to meet.

All of the dramatic conventions of a biopic can be found in The Life of Emile Zola, and normally that would be enough for me to pick to pieces any day of the week. So why do I stand in such admiration of this film? Again, The Word. The screenwriters have done a superlative job of creating dialogue (though cribbing some from Zola, of course) and situations that crackle with drama, yes, but also truth.

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I’d go so far as to say that Zola’s slander trial is the best courtroom scene ever filmed. The entire proceeding teems with the active participation of the entire courtroom and the throngs of Parisians out in the streets. A much looser affair than Americans are used to seeing in any of our courtroom dramas, witnesses take the stand and replace each other almost at will. Swearing in seems optional. The defense calls Mme. Dreyfus, but the chief justice refuses to allow her to answer a single question. Indeed, he plays favorites with alacrity, a believable face of bias and government corruption acting believably, repeating “The question cannot be put,” in a successful effort to prevent Zola’s defense attorney Labori (Donald Crisp) from building a case. According to newspaper reports of the time, accuracy was a watchword in building this scene, save for the fact that the impassioned defense summation to the jury was made by Labori, not Zola. This is an inaccuracy that works brilliantly, however, and puts the capper on a lively and varied performance by Paul Muni, though one not without its hammy moments.

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The humiliation of Dreyfus—stripped of the signs of his military rank and paraded in front of the regiment and the public at large—was horrifying to watch. Dreyfus maintained his strict military discipline even in this dark hour, and the perfunctory behavior of the soldiers during his incarceration and then at his release seems otherworldly. By contrast, when Dreyfus’ cell is unlocked for the last time, he walks out, then back in, out and back in—a truly human, wonderfully acted and directed moment that could have been dispensed with in a film more interested in bones than flesh. It is fitting to me that Schildkraut won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, whereas Muni was denied a golden boy.

The final eulogy, delivered by Cezanne, is perhaps the work of the Oscar-winning screenwriters (I can’t find evidence to the contrary):

Let us not mourn him. Let us rather salute that bright spirit of his which will live forever, and like a torch, enlighten a younger generation inspired to follow him.

You who are enjoying today’s freedom, take to your hearts the words of Zola. Do not forget those who fought the battles for you and bought your liberty with their genius and their blood. Do not forget them and applaud the lies of fanatical intolerance.

Be human. For no man in all the breadth of our land more fervently loved humanity than Zola.

He had the simplicity of a great soul.

He was enjoying the fruits of his labor—fame, wealth, security—when suddenly, out of his own free will, he tore himself from all the peaceful pleasures of his life, from the work he loved so much because he knew that their is no serenity, save in justice; no repose—save in truth.

At the sound of his brave words, France wakened from her sleep. How admirable is the genius of our country. How beautiful the soul of France which for centuries taught right and justice to Europe and the world.

France is once again today the land of reason and benevolence because one of her sons, through an immense work and a great action, gave rise to a new order of things based on justice and the rights common to all men.

Let us not pity him because he suffered and endured. Let us envy him. Let us envy him because his great heart won him the proudest of destinies: He was a moment of the conscience of man.

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The only serious fault I can find with this film is that it neglects to mention that Dreyfus was a Jew and that Zola spoke out against the anti-Semitism behind the Dreyfus Affair. At a time when the Nazis were already killing Jews, this film could have—and should have—been more frank.

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 9:06 pm

    I agree Emile Zola is a terrific film, quite under-rated these days, and by far the cream of the old-school bio-pics I’ve seen. Yes, it follows the template of that genre neatly – it’s broad, corny, it compresses events – but it also realizes the strengths of the genre, offering dexterous understanding of complex political and social events so that they gain the intensity of melodrama. It’s also only in the vaguest terms a biography of Emile Zola – it’s got virtually nothing to do with his art, and everything to do with his fightin’ social conscience and how it engages with a fraught moment in European history. I first saw this not long after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and I responded to the film at the time as a still-timely and accurate portrait of self-important politicians and soldiers sacrificing anyone they wanted to, to keep “on-message”. One was hearing the same rhetoric being channeled through the mass-media every day at the time. Legal questions and points of conscience and possibilities of mismanagement must take second place to overall picture, the overt nobility of what we’re doing, etc.
    And yes, once seen, all other courtroom scenes pale compared to the Hogarthian vividness of the madhouse of Zola’s trial. It’s certainly far superior to the two or three other films I’ve seen about the Dreyfus Affair. Particularly clever is how the narrative builds Zola’s crisis of conscience to a point where he seems to have lost all his guts, and then walks into the L’Aurore office and reads his J’Accuse letter –good dramaturgy.
    The film is painful in not mentioning Dreyfus’s specific ethnicity, but it does make it a) clear that what’s happening to him is the result of his ethnicity, and b) accurately portrays the hysteria as stemming from nationalistic interests and ruling-class ass-covering, and c) implicates the wider society in this prejudice that has relevance to the then-contemporaneous European political situation. I’m willing to bet the Dreyfus case intrigued Muni and the filmmakers because of its timeliness – the case was responsible for a revelation of, and a stoking of, latent anti-Semitism that intellectuals of the day were shocked to find was still so ingrained in “modern” society, and was yet to reach its new apogee under Hitler. It’s peculiar that Dieterle and Muni were shy of mentioning anti-Semitism by name, considering that Muni was Jewish and Dieterle went on to turn his version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame into a specific parable. Several possibilities occur to me: that the studio was shy of offending the Nazis – unlikely, but it suits our disdain for Hollywood; or, I think more likely, that Muni and others were afraid that labeling Dreyfus as Jewish would somehow rob the tale of its universality, which would tie in nicely to the studios’ dislike of getting too political.
    And what struggling writer doesn’t fantasize about something like Zola’s scene with the bookseller?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 9:58 pm

    I totally agree – this film really knows how to use biopic conventions to their greatest effect. And yes, it is a true melodrama – I didn’t really feel for the characters, except for Dreyfus, but I felt deeply for the injustice of the situation, which is what superior melodramas do. It put me in mind a bit of Black Book. I also greatly appreciated the parts of the film that maintained historical accuracy. And yes, Hogarthian is the perfect word for the trial.
    I’ve noted that cinema of the 30s backed right away from ethnicity. I think the ferment of the 30s had everyone skittish about “agitation,” which immigrants represented to the ruling elite. I’m not sure I agree that the film was as suggestive as you say it was regarding the Jewish subtext; I kept waiting for them to mention it explicitly, and it just never happened. Perhaps that’s why I missed more subtle references – but surely viewers in 1937 knew Dreyfus was a Jew. Would they have missed it the way I did? I just don’t have an answer for that.
    Interestingly, I saw an Italian film this evening called The Organizer about a labor strike in 1890s Italy. It had a lot of the same elements as Zola, a melodrama that highlighted the cause rather than the characters. It was also very good in the same way this film is good.

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/02/2009 to 11:27 pm

    It’s clear that Dreyfus is chosen because of his Otherness, though it’s not specifically identified as Jewishness: if you’ll recall, when the senior staff realizes there’s a spy in their offices, they read a list of names of staff, and one of them blurts something close to, “What’s someone with a name like that doing on the staff?” And everything proceeds from there: he’s the patsy because he’s a “foreigner” and only a “foreigner” can be the traitor (which actually proves to be true – just a different foreigner).
    I’d expect most people knew Dreyfus was Jewish – this case was after all as old to the audiences of ’37 as the trial of the Chicago Ten is for us, for instance. I don’t know how skittish ’30s Hollywood was about ethnicity – after all, Muni got into the bio-pic genre after playing Poles, Italians, Hispanics, etc; and this was only ten years after The Jazz Singer. But it was certainly wary of commenting on controversial politics – and the Nazis somehow turned being Jewish into controversial politics, it seems. I recall a contemporary jibe aimed at Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Mortal Storm (where it’s still danced around – Frank Morgan’s patriarch is only called a “non-Aryan”) as being “the type of film we needed five years ago”.
    There’s a defensive quality about this de-specifying that’s disturbing – it reveals how much control over the terms of debate the Nazis had and how much cultural timidity they, and their like-minded friends everywhere, had ingrained. But there’s another aspect to it that’s slightly more heartening: it’s refusing to play the game of the either/or. De-specifying prejudice both morally shows up the prejudiced as dishonest and unjust regardless of who they’re victimizing, and removes one weapon from antagonist’s hands – the chance to accuse Hollywood of being run by Jews and shoveling out Jewish propaganda. I suspect that’s pretty close to the anxious truth: look at the rumors that labeled Charlie Chaplin as Jewish for making The Great Dictator where he’s very specific about who the victims are, and it’s easy to see the potency of the issue. I’m not saying this is right, or particularly courageous, but I can see the thinking behind such evasions then, and not necessarily mere weak-kneed-ness.
    Oh and one other trial scene rivals Zola’s for vivid craziness – the one in The Lady from Shanghai.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/02/2009 to 8:30 am

    That comment about his name must have slipped right past me. If I had remembered hearing it, I would agree with you entirely.
    Yes, the Nazis were definitely a strong influence throughout the world, and anti-Semitism was alive and well not only in the United States, but in the U.S. government. I agree with the implications that scapegoating could happen to anyone – and there were other films of the time that handled this subject. I’m not sure most people believed it, though. Perhaps this is the only way the Jewish film moguls thought they could help the Jews of Europe.

  • david fielding spoke:
    23rd/11/2011 to 4:43 pm

    Just a short note to say that the finally eulogy is spoken not by Cezanne, who fell out with Zola after the publication of The Masterpiece, but by Anatole France and is based on the text he actually gave as a passionate funeral oration.

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