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The Life of Emile Zola (1937)



Average Rating: 6.8/10
Reviews Counted: 21
Fresh: 15 | Rotten: 6

Well-written, well-meaning and solidly acted, the film may ultimately be more earnest than interesting.


Average Rating: 5.8/10
Critic Reviews: 6
Fresh: 4 | Rotten: 2

Well-written, well-meaning and solidly acted, the film may ultimately be more earnest than interesting.



liked it
Average Rating: 3.6/5
User Ratings: 2,205

My Rating

Movie Info

The second of Paul Muni's biographical films for Warner Bros., the Oscar-winning The Life of Emile Zola is by far the best, even allowing for the dramatic license taken with the material. When first we meet French novelist and essayist Zola, he is starving in a Parisian garret with his painter friend, Paul Cezanne. Each time Zola attempts to write "the truth," he is stymied by governmental censors. Still, he is able to achieve both fame and fortune with the publication of "Nana," an unardorned


Drama, Classics

Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg

Feb 1, 2005

MGM Home Entertainment

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All Critics (21) | Top Critics (6) | Fresh (15) | Rotten (6) | DVD (8)

Last week Warner Brothers released a movie which is probably the outstanding prestige picture of the season. It is also one of the best shows.

February 17, 2009 Full Review Source: TIME Magazine
TIME Magazine
Top Critic IconTop Critic

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.

January 28, 2008 Full Review Source: Variety
Top Critic IconTop Critic

This act of altruism on behalf of the brothers Warner was rewarded with the best picture Oscar for 1937; it isn't so much bad as utterly, magisterially bland.

December 12, 2006 Full Review Source: Chicago Reader
Chicago Reader
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Carefully mounted, well directed and acted, but basically the sort of well-meaning pap out of which Oscars are made.

June 24, 2006 Full Review Source: Time Out
Time Out
Top Critic IconTop Critic

A great and valuable and stirring film document.

May 20, 2003 Full Review Source: New York Times
New York Times
Top Critic IconTop Critic

It's a compelling film that demands no previous knowledge of the title character in order to derive satisfaction from the story.

October 2, 1937 Full Review Source: ReelViews | Comment (1)
Top Critic IconTop Critic

Stacks up well against many a film biography of the subsequent three-quarters of a century.

April 21, 2013 Full Review Source: ReelTalk Movie Reviews
ReelTalk Movie Reviews

A piece of pap.

March 19, 2008 Full Review Source: Ozus' World Movie Reviews
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

A moving evocation of an era and a heroic deed.

February 20, 2008 Full Review Source: Empire Magazine
Empire Magazine

One of Warner's earnest biopics of great men, with good acting from Paul Muni in the lead and Joseph Schildkraut who won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the wrongly accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus

November 16, 2006 Full Review Source: EmanuelLevy.Com

A recurring theme among Oscar winners, Life of Emile Zola's anti-oppression topic rings loudly in the ears of all those who would use war as an excuse to abridge freedoms.

October 10, 2006 Full Review Source: Cinema Sight
Cinema Sight

The patchy, overly earnest screenplay as well as the typically shapeless direction of William Dieterle keep calcifying the movie into an arid diorama.

August 20, 2006 Full Review Source: Nick's Flick Picks
Nick's Flick Picks

The Life of Emile Zola may seem somewhat dated today, its methods and manner a little old-fashioned, and its style rather quaint.

February 9, 2005 Full Review Source: Not Coming to a Theater Near You
Not Coming to a Theater Near You

If you sit down to watch The Life of Emile Zola, skip the first third of the movie, because frankly, the beginning blows goats.

August 8, 2003
Matt's Movie Reviews

Along with George Arliss, Paul Muni was Hollywood's designated portrayer of Great Men.

July 30, 2003 Full Review Source: TV Guide's Movie Guide
TV Guide's Movie Guide

The film finds its focus and its heart when Schildkraut is banished to Devil's Island, and then it can hardly be faulted.

May 24, 2003 Full Review Source: Film4

Typical, solidly-mounted simplistic biopic from William Dieterle.

February 2, 2003
Mountain Xpress (Asheville, NC)

The dialogue is perhaps overwritten, but moments are superb between Zola and his roommate artist Cezanne as they talk of government and injustices.

July 3, 2002

This look at how screwed up the French legal system is can be harrowing.

July 25, 2001 Full Review Source:

A curiously uninvolving biopic.

January 1, 2000 Full Review Source: Flick Filosopher
Flick Filosopher

The strong story line is enhanced by intelligent dialogue and first rate performances by a stellar cast

January 1, 2000 Full Review Source:

Audience Reviews for The Life of Emile Zola

This film is based on the life/work of French writer and activist Emile Zola. It starts out as a stand biopic, but then becomes a stirring courtroom drama, as it focuses on one of the most important events of Zola's life: his condemnation of antisemitism that led to the wrongful accusement of army officer Alfred Dreyfuss, in what is known as the Dreyfuss Affair. Through tireless determination and effort, Zola helped to get Dreyfus exonerated, though he himself was wrongfully charged with libel, mostly because of corruption and shady doings.

I had known little about Zola before seeing this, and was only marginally familiar with the Dreyfus Affair. The good thing about this movie is that you can still appreciate it without needing in depth knowledge prior to seeing it.

It takes a fair amount of liberties with things, and unfortunately it fails to really point the finger at antisemitism, though it makes up for it by being a very stinging condemnation of mob mentality instead. Aside from that, this is a fine film filled with great music from Max Steiner, and some really goosd performances from Paul Muni and many of the supporting players, many who sometimes upstage him.

I enjoyed this, but I might need to give it a second viewing, as I kept getting interrupted and didn't get to enjoy it in piece. For an oldie (depsite its flaws) it's pretty good. Give it a watch.
October 8, 2011
Chris Weber

Super Reviewer

Creaky biopic of an interesting and worthwhile story. Keeping in perspective when it was made the film is not bad, Muni a fine actor when not in costume, say in Chain Gang, brings the hambone out as Zola ages and many of the rest of the cast are stiff and overly grand. However it is incredible that this middling film won Best Picture over the original A Star is Born, Stage Door and the Awful Truth!!
October 4, 2009
jay nixon

Super Reviewer

Paul Muni is so good I'd have to invent a new vocabulary to adequately describe his performance. Fantabulous. Outstandnistic. Wonderical.
February 3, 2009
Randy Tippy

Super Reviewer

In 1862, Emile Zola(Paul Muni) and his friend Paul Cezanne(Vladimir Sokoloff) are a pair of starving and freezing artists trying to survive in Paris. Even a regular job in a bookstore does not last long for Zola. What does change Zola's fortunes is an opportune encounter with Nana(Edna O'Brien Moore) after they save her from arrest by the police. After which, she relays her story of woe which inspires Zola to write a novel. That turns out to be the first of many bestsellers for him and the beginning of a very comfortable life. And then there is the case of Alfred Dreyfus(Joseph Schildkraut).

Despite its title, "The Life of Emile Zola" is really not a biopic. Rather, its first thirty minutes about Zola's rise to fame just serves as a prelude to its take on the Alfred Dreyfus case which might have been still controversial at the time this was made. As such, this movie makes an excellent case for the role of the artist in society being a socially conscious one to which it provides a prime example. That comes complete with rousing speeches, very good performances and crowd scenes which Shakespeare would be proud of.
June 14, 2014
Walter M.

Super Reviewer

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Foreign Titles

  • La vie d'Emilie Zola (FR)
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