Tuesday, February 15, 2011


It seems as though I have never done a full-length blog posting on The Life of Émile Zola before. It's airing again tomorrow morning at 11:15 AM ET.

Paul Muni plays the 19th century French writer Émile Zola, who came to prominence during the reign of Emperor Napoleon III, but really became a success during the Third Republic with the controversial novel Nana challenging the middle-class sensibilities of the day. This was to put him squarely at odds with the establishment, although the book was wildly successful and Zola became a relatively wealthy man as a result. Zola continues his writing, but things change when the Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is brought up on trumped-up court-martial charges simply because he's Jewish. Zola at first doesn't do anything about it, but Mme. Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) is insistent that somebody help her get her husband out of Devil's Island.

Seeing just how rampant anti-Semitism is in the French establishment, and how clear it is that Dreyfus has been railroaded, Zola writes the famous tract J'accuse!, in which he puts French prejudice on display for all to see. If he was in trouble with the establishment before, now he really is; Zola is forced into exile in England in order to publish J'accuse! and eventually faces a libel suit back in France where the establishment is perfectly willing ot perjure themselves in order not to be found guilty.

But of course, the facts are more or less well-known. When judging a biopic, one has to look at the performances and the production values. The Life of Émile Zola was made at Warner Bros. in 1937, and while the movie doesn't have the glitz that MGM would have been able to give it, it's still a very-well made movie, thanks in no small part to the performance of Paul Muni. That, and Warners' continued willingness to tackle social issues in the 1930s. The movie does take some liberties with history, putting events closer together than they actually occurred, but the liberties aren't quite as bad as many biopics take.

The Life of Émile Zola has made it to DVD in several editions.

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