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The Life of Émile Zola

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Title: The Life of Émile Zola  
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Subject: Academy Award for Best Director, Dreyfus affair, New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, List of biographical films, List of American films of 1937, Academy Award for Best Actor
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The Life of Émile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola
File:The Life of Emile Zola poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Henry Blanke
Written by Matthew Josephson (source material)
Heinz Herald (story and screenplay)
Geza Herczeg (story and screenplay)
Norman Reilly Raine (screenplay)
Starring Paul Muni
Gloria Holden
Gale Sondergaard
Joseph Schildkraut
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Editing by Warren Low
Studio Warner Bros.
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s)Template:Plainlist
Running time 116 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about French author Émile Zola. Directed by William Dieterle, it stars Paul Muni.

Set in the mid through late 19th century, it depicts Zola's friendship with Post-Impressionsist painter Paul Cézanne, and his rise to fame through his prolific writing, with particular focus on his involvement late in life in the Dreyfus affair.

The film had its premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles and was a great success both critically and financially; contemporary reviews cited it as the best biographical film made up to that time. It is still held in high regard by many critics. It is the second biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

In 2000, The Life of Emile Zola was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot

Struggling writer Émile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a drafty Paris attic with his friend, painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). A chance encounter with a street prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) hiding from a police raid leads to his first bestseller, Nana, an exposé of the steamy underside of Parisian life.

Other successful books follow. Zola becomes rich and famous; he marries Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) and settles down to a comfortable life in his mansion. One day, his old friend Cézanne, still poor and unknown, visits him before leaving the city. He tells Zola that he has become complacent, a far cry from the zealous reformer of his youth.

Meanwhile, a French secret agent steals a letter addressed to a military officer in the German embassy. The letter confirms there is a spy within the top French army staff. With little thought, the army commanders decide that Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is the traitor. He is courtmartialed and imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guyana.

Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) as the spy, but he is ordered by his superiors to remain silent, as this revelation would embarrass them. He is quickly reassigned to a distant post.

Years go by. Finally, Dreyfus's loyal wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) pleads with Zola to take up her husband's cause. Zola is reluctant to give up his comfortable life, but the evidence she has brought him piques his curiosity. He publishes a letter in the newspaper accusing the army of covering up a monstrous injustice. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by agents provocateurs employed by the military.

As he had expected, he is brought to trial for libel. His attorney, Maitre Labori (Donald Crisp) does his best, but the apparently unfair presiding judge refuses to allow him to bring up the Dreyfus affair and the military witnesses all commit perjury, with the exception of Picquart. Zola is found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. He reluctantly accepts the advice of his friends not to risk becoming a martyr and flees to England, where he continues to write on behalf of Dreyfus.

A new administration finally admits that Dreyfus is innocent, those responsible for the coverup are forced to resign or are dismissed, and Walsin-Esterhazy flees the country in disgrace. Zola dies of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty stove the night before the public ceremony in which Dreyfus is exonerated.

Cast

Reception and interpretation

The movie was well received and had scenes widely interpreted at the time as attacks on the increasing repression of Nazi Germany. Critic David Denby in 2013 noted that, while the movie featured progressive rhetoric in Zola's last speech, overall it was "a perfect example of the half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion that marked Hollywood's response to Nazism and anti-Semitism in the nineteen-thirties."[1] For instance, the film never mentioned "anti-Semitism" or "Jew".[1]In 2013 American scholar Ben Urwand reported that studio head Jack Warner personally ordered the word 'Jew' to be excised from all the dialogue in the film.[2]

Awards

The film won three Academy Awards and was nominated in another seven categories.[3]

Academy Award nominations

21st century controversy

The film is among the subject films studied in two books published in 2013: Ben Urwand's The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, and Thomas Doherty, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939.[1] Denby notes that Doherty provides more context for the studios' behavior, setting it against the political culture of the period. Urwand learned that Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul in Los Angeles, occasionally was allowed to review and make recommendations on films. But, in the same period, the studios set up an association office to develop a Production Code, directed by Will H. Hays, who appointed a Catholic layman, Joseph I. Breen as "censor-in-chief," who after 1934 had even more influence over movies. Denby found the studio heads acting as businessmen, who were sometimes overly cautious and fearful of their place in American society.[1]

References

External links

  • Template:AFI film
  • Internet Movie Database
  • Template:Allmovie title
  • TCM Movie Database

Template:AcademyAwardBestPicture 1927-1940

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