Best Picture Review: The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

The best 1937 had to offer!
The best 1937 had to offer!

Monday evening, Lauren and I sat down to continue our Best Picture viewing with 1937’s “The Life of Emile Zola.”

Before I begin my review, this poster at right is troubling me; it is wildly misleading.  At no point in the movie does any actor even slightly resembling this man appear.  Most likely, this was the real life Paul Muni, who played an elderly Emile Zola in the movie.

Now that I have that little tidbit out of the way, I will discuss this classic film.  Turns out this is a mostly factual retelling of the story of French writer Emile Zola… well, at least a small portion of his life.  We begin with a penniless Zola rooming in Paris with aspiring artist Paul Cezanne.  Zola writes a book that is deemed unsatisfactory by the public, which seems to entice the French to desire to read it all the more.

We skip ahead a few years, where Zola continues writing books, each as unwholesome as the last, yet all very truthful.  Zola becomes quite wealthy and reaches a point where he wants to retire and lounge around daydreaming all day.

Meanwhile, an extremely significant event in the history of France is taking place.  A man named Dreyfus has been convicted of treason and is sent off to a life of solitary confinement at Devil’s Island, a prison on a tiny island of French Guiana.  You may know this nugget of history as the Dreyfus Affair.  Of course Dreyfus is innocent, but is wasting away years of his life in this tiny hut on another continent all alone.

Zola goes to court... uh-oh!
Zola goes to court... uh-oh!

One day, Dreyfus’ desperate wife comes to Zola, believing he is the last man who can set her husband free.  Zola agrees, and writes a published letter to the president calling for Dreyfus’ retrial.  After many court appearances, appeals, and a series of twists and turns, Dreyfus is set free, all thanks to Zola.

Much like the biographical picture we just watched of Florenz Ziegfeld, the movie kinda sways from the star and focuses on a single aspect of his work/life.  We are derailed from Zola’s life for about 40 minutes so we can watch how the Dreyfus court trials play out.  Unlike The Great Ziegfeld breaking away to show an hour of pointless musical footage, this courtroom banter is important to the plot and is quite interesting.

The acting was good, the story was engaging, and it was a much-needed lesson in history for me.  Unlike most of the previous movies we’ve seen to this point, there really aren’t many interesting trivial facts to bring up.  The only dirt I could find was the movie was shot in reverse order.  This way, Paul Muni was able to grow out a full beard prior to the film, then shave it away to make Zola appear younger.  Muni also had to go through almost four hours of makeup every day to get ready for the shoot.

All in all, it’s another winner in my book.  I guess that puts it at #5 of 8.  Next up, 1938’s “You Can’t Take It with You.”

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