The Life of Emile Zola (1937) - Rotten Tomatoes

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)



Critic Consensus: Well-written, well-meaning and solidly acted, The Life of Emile Zola film may ultimately be more earnest than dramatically engaging.

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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 and best-selling tale of a prostitute (whom we can safely assume was not quite as likeable or attractive as Erin O'Brien-Moore, who plays the novel's "role model"). The lion's share of the film is devoted to Zola's attempts to clear the reputation of Army captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), who has been framed on a charge of treason by his superiors and condemned to Devil's Island. Publishing his famous manifesto "J'accuse," Zola leaves himself wide open for public condemnation and criminal prosecution. Though he delivers a brilliant self-defense in court, Zola is found guilty. Forced to flee to England, he continues railing against the unjust, corrupt military establishment, eventually forcing a retrial and exoneration of Dreyfus. Alas, Zola is killed in a freak accident at home before he can meet the liberated Dreyfus. At his funeral, Emile Zola is eulogized by Anatole France (Morris Carnovsky), who refers to the fallen crusader as "a moment of the conscience of man." For various reasons -- some dramatic, some legal -- the actual facts of "L'affaire Dreyfus" are altered by the Norman Reilly Raine/Heinz Herald/Geza Herczeg screenplay. The fact that Dreyfus was railroaded because he was Jewish is obscured; in fact, except for a very brief visual reference, the word "Jew" is never mentioned. Only those villains whose names were a matter of public record (Major Dort, Major Esterhazy) are specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. to avoid lawsuits from their descendants (remember that the events depicted in the film, most of which take place between 1894 and 1902, were still within living memory in 1937). As for Dreyfus himself, he was not freed and restored to rank in 1902, the year of Zola's death, but in 1906-after being found guilty again in an 1899 retrial (Dreyfus died in 1935, outliving everyone else involved in the case). These historical gaffes can be forgiven in the light of the film's overall message: that a single small, clear voice can fight City Hall. If for nothing else, The Life of Emile Zola deserves classic status due to Paul Muni's towering performance, most notably in the unforgettable summation scene: "By all that I have done for France, by my works -- by all that I have written, I swear to you that Dreyfus is innocent. May all that melt away -- may my name be forgotten, if Dreyfus is not innocent. He is innocent ."more
Rating: G
Genre: Drama, Classics
Directed By: ,
Written By: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg
In Theaters:
On DVD: Feb 1, 2005
MGM Home Entertainment


Paul Muni
as Emile Zola
Joseph Schildkraut
as Capt. Alfred Dreyfus
Gale Sondergaard
as Lucie Dreyfus
Gloria Holden
as Alexandrine Zola
Donald Crisp
as Maitre Labori
John Litel
as Charpentier
Henry O'Neill
as Col. Picquart
Morris Carnovsky
as Anatole France
Louis Calhern
as Maj. Dort
Ralph Morgan
as Commander of Paris
Robert H. Barrat
as Maj. Walsin-Esterhaz...
Vladimir Sokoloff
as Paul Cezanne
Harry Davenport
as Chief of Staff
Robert Warwick
as Maj. Henry
Charles Richman
as Monsieur Delagorgue
Dickie Moore
as Pierre Dreyfus
Rolla Gourvitch
as Jeanne Dreyfus
Gilbert Emery
as Minister of War
Walter Kingsford
as Col. Sandherr
Paul Everton
as Assistant Chief of S...
Montagu Love
as Cavaignac
Frank Sheridan
as Van Cassell
Robert Cummings
as Gen. Gillian
Lumsden Hare
as Mr. Richards
Marcia Mae Jones
as Helen Richards
Florence Roberts
as Madame Zola
Grant Mitchell
as Georges Clemenceau
Moroni Olsen
as Capt. Guignet
Egon Brecher
as Brucker
Frank Reicher
as M. Perrenx
Walter O. Stahl
as Senator Scheurer-Kes...
Iphigenie Castiglion...
as Madame Charpentier
Arthur Ayleswofth
as Chief Censor
Frank Mayo
as Mathieu Dreyfus
Alexander Leftwich
as Maj. D'Aboville
Pierre Watkin
as Prefect of Police
Holmes Herbert
as Commander of Paris
Robert Cummings Sr.
as Gen. Gillian
Harry Worth
as Lieutenant
William Von Brincken
as Schwartzkoppen
Robert Cummings
as Gen. Gillian
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Critic Reviews for The Life of Emile Zola

All Critics (23) | Top Critics (7)

The most distinguished and most important contribution to the screen this year.

Full Review… | February 17, 2015
New York Daily News
Top Critic

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.

Full Review… | February 17, 2009
TIME Magazine
Top 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.

Full Review… | January 28, 2008
Top 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.

Full Review… | December 12, 2006
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

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

Full Review… | June 24, 2006
Time Out
Top Critic

A great and valuable and stirring film document.

Full Review… | May 20, 2003
New York Times
Top Critic

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.

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!!

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.

Randy Tippy

Super Reviewer

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