Warners’ most ambitious film production of many months, “The Life of Emile Zola,” is a vibrant, tense and emotional story about the man who fought a nation with his pen and successfully championed the cause of the exiled Capt. Alfred Dreyfus. With Paul Muni in the title role, supported by distinguished players in sustaining parts, the film is destined to box office approval of the most substantial character. It is finely made and merits high rating as cinema art and significant recognition as major showmanship.
Encouraged by last season’s biographical filming of “Story of Louis Pasteur,” the studio strikes boldly with this more dramatic theme. In addition to character delineation Muni has a role which at times is submerged under the plot and counterplot of one of the amazing intrigues of modern times, but scenarists and actor use these moments as calm before the storms of bursting declamation.
The picture is Muni’s all the way, even when he is off screen.
Covering a period of the last half of the past century, action is laid in Paris, except for short interludes in England and on Devil’s Island, whither Dreyfus was banished by courtmartial after conspiracy charges that he betrayed military secrets to Germany. Although the release of Dreyfus is made the principal dramatic incident of the picture, the development of the character and career of Zola remains dominant.
By a series of interesting incidents in the early life of the writer his passion for truth is a relentless battle against wrong, and his affection for humanity are strikingly portrayed. Thus, the audience is informed of the derivation of his earlier novels of “Nana,” in which he stripped the Paris underworld of its glitter and laid it bare, and his other crusading works. In his late years he is ready for election to the French academy and to the recognition he has earned when he renounces fame and friends and, spurred by righteous indignation and patriotic fervor, he takes up the fight to free Dreyfus and purge the French army general staff of deceit and conspiracy.
In a work where the general ensemble has been excellently balanced, where the director, William Dieterle, has the benefit of an unusually effective screen play, and where no effort to curtail on production is evident, it is impossible to designate individual credits. Outstanding acting support is furnished by nearly a dozen players of whom Joseph Schildkraut as Dreyfus, Gale Sondergaard as his wife, and Erin O’Brien-Moore in a lesser role, as the inspiration for the conception of “Nana,” leave deep impressions. Mountings are of exceptional pretensions and costuming excellent and effective.
Racial theme is lightly touched upon, but impressive notwithstanding. There is discreet religious symbolism introduced.
“Zola” as film entertainment will appeal to showmen everywhere. It is a brilliant conception, admirably accomplished. An outstanding achievement from Hollywood.
1937: Outstanding Production (Warner Bros.), Actor in a Supporting Role (Joseph Schildkraut), Writing–Screenplay (Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg)
Nominations: Actor (Paul Muni), Art Direction (Anton Grot), Assistant Director (Russ Saunders), Directing (William Dieterle), Music–Scoring (Warner Bros. Studio Music Department, Leo Forbstein, head of department. Score by Max Steiner), Sound Recording (Warner Bros. Studio Sound Department, Nathan Levinson, Sound Director), Writing–Original Story (Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg)