The Life of Emile Zola: Warner’s First Best Picture

Paul Muni and Vladimir Sokoloff in The Life of Emile Zola. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Life of Emile Zola might not be remembered like other films but the biopic gave Warner Bros. their first Best Picture in studio history.

Emile Zola (Paul Muni) is a writer that takes up Captain Alfred Dreyfus’ (Joseph Schildkraut) cause after a false accusation and conviction of a crime he did not commit. Zola risks his entire career by publishing J’Accuse…! in a French paper. As a result of his involvement, Zola would later find himself on trial for libel. He ends up heading for London before the trial ends in a conviction.

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. While I recognize that the film took home an Oscar, it isn’t without its flaws. For one, why there not a single utterance of the word “Jew” during any moment in the film? After all, Captain Alfred Dreyfus was Jewish. The only reason why we even have the Dreyfus affair is for this very reason. So why is it that nobody in this film seems to want to acknowledge this? Maybe it’s because of the antisemitism of the day? We all know that Dreyfus’s arrest is because of French antisemitism. Even if the studio didn’t acknowledge it in this particular film, they weren’t afraid of touching upon antisemitism in other films.

Make no mistake that there’s a solid story here. Again, the big fault with the film is what they do not say! You have a character in jail because he’s Jewish and the film doesn’t acknowledge it. Is this really a hard thing to do? Personally, I think not. It’s hard to view this film and not come away with a feeling of disappointment. One could look at it as being Hollywood’s attitude at the time. I’m not accusing studios of appeasing Germany, which at the time was already under Hitler’s power. We all know of Warner Bros. being the only studio with guts. Other studios didn’t want to risk losing the market. Of course, it’s possible that they didn’t know just how bad conditions were at the time. But still, this does not explain the lack of acknowledging Dreyfus as Jewish.

The film earned ten nominations when they were announced in February 1938. Over a month later at the Biltmore Hotel, the film would take home three wins (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay. If you ask me, The Awful Truth should have won for Best Picture. Most surprisingly, Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was not nominated.

The Life of Emile Zola might not be a perfect film–and probably wouldn’t win an Oscar if it were made today–but it’s still a solid film.

DIRECTOR:  William Dieterle
SCREENWRITERS:  Norman Reilly Raine & Heinz Herald & Geza Herczeg
CAST:  Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Erin O’Brien-Moore, Louis Calhern, Morris Carnovsky

Warner Bros. opened The Life of Emile Zola on August 11, 1937. Grade: 4/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.