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

This biographical film opens with French novelist Emile Zola starving in a Parisian garret. 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 unadorned tale of a prostitute.
Classics , Drama
Directed By:
Written By:
In Theaters:
MGM Home Entertainment

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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-Esterhazy
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 Staff
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-Kestner
Frank Darien
as Albert
Iphigenie Castiglioni
as Madame Charpentier
Arthur Ayleswofth
as Chief Censor
Frank Mayo
as Mathieu Dreyfus
Alexander Leftwich
as Maj. D'Aboville
Paul Irving
as La Rue
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
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Critic Reviews for The Life of Emile Zola

All Critics (24) | 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.

June 23, 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


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.

Walter M.
Walter M.

Super Reviewer

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
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
jay nixon

Super Reviewer

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