The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Henry Blanke
Screenplay by Heinz Herald
Geza Herczeg
Norman Reilly Raine
Story by Heinz Herald
Geza Herczeg
Based on Zola and His Time
by Matthew Josephson
Starring Paul Muni
Gloria Holden
Gale Sondergaard
Joseph Schildkraut
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Tony Gaudio
Edited by Warren Low
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • August 11, 1937 (1937-08-11)
Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Premiere of The Life of Emile Zola at the Carthay Circle Theater (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about French author Émile Zola, played by Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle. It has the distinction of being the second biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It premiered at the Los Angeles Carthay Circle Theatre to great success both critically and financially. Contemporary reviews cited it the best biographical film made up to that time. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Set in the mid through late 19th century, it depicts Zola's friendship with Post-Impressionist 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.

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 inspires 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, and tells Zola that with his success 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, is courtmartialed and imprisoned on Devil's Island in then French Guyana.

Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating as the spy Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), but he is ordered by his superiors to remain silent to avert official embarrassment and 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 a comfortable life, but she brings forth new evidence to pique his curiosity. A letter is published in the newspaper accusing the army of covering up the monstrous injustice. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by military agents provocateurs.

As expected, he is brought up for libel. His attorney, Maitre Labori (Donald Crisp) does his best against the presiding judge's refusal to bring up the Dreyfus affair and the perjury committed by all the military witnesses, except for Picquart. Zola, found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison, reluctantly accepts his friends' advice to avoid risk becoming a martyr and instead flee to England, to continue the campaign on behalf of Dreyfus.

A new administration finally admits that Dreyfus is innocent, those responsible for the coverup are dismissed or commit suicide, although 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.


Paul Muni Émile Zola Nominated Best Actor
Gloria Holden Alexandrine Zola
Gale Sondergaard Lucie Dreyfus
Joseph Schildkraut Captain Alfred Dreyfus Presented Supporting Actor
Donald Crisp Maitre Labori
Erin O'Brien-Moore Nana
John Litel Charpentier
Henry O'Neill Colonel Picquart
Morris Carnovsky Anatole France, Zola's friend and supporter
Louis Calhern Major Dort
Ralph Morgan Commander of Paris
Robert Barrat Major Walsin-Esterhazy
Vladimir Sokoloff Paul Cézanne
Grant Mitchell Georges Clemenceau
Harry Davenport Chief of Staff
Robert Warwick Major Henry
Charles Richman M. Delagorgue
Gilbert Emery Minister of War
Walter Kingsford Colonel Sandherr
Paul Everton Assistant Chief of Staff
Montagu Love M. Cavaignac
Frank Sheridan M. Van Cassell
Lumsden Hare Mr. Richards
Marcia Mae Jones Helen Richards
Florence Roberts Madame Zola, Zola's mother
Dickie Moore Pierre Dreyfus, Captain Dreyfus's son
Rolla Gourvitch Jeanne Dreyfus, Dreyfus's daughter

Reception and interpretation

Contemporary reviews were unanimous in their praise. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote, "Rich, dignified, honest, and strong, it is at once the finest historical film ever made and the greatest screen biography, greater even than The Story of Louis Pasteur with which the Warners squared their conscience last year ... Paul Muni's portrayal of Zola is, without doubt, the best thing he has done."[1] Variety called it "a vibrant, tense and emotional story ... It is finely made and merits high rating as cinema art and significant recognition as major showmanship."[2] Harrison's Reports called it "A dignified, powerful, and at times stirring historical drama, brilliantly directed, and superbly acted by Paul Muni, as Zola, the great French writer."[3] John Mosher of The New Yorker praised it as "a picture of considerable distinction" with "no nonsense."[4] The Life of Emile Zola topped Film Daily's year-end poll of 531 critics as the best film of 1937.[5]

Certain scenes have been interpreted in the context of the time as a reaction to 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 antisemitism in the nineteen-thirties."[6] For instance, the film never mentioned "antisemitism" or "Jew".[6] In 2013 American scholar Ben Urwand reported that studio head Jack L. Warner, a Jew himself, personally ordered the word 'Jew' to be excised from all the dialogue in the film,[7] although Urwand's thesis of collaboration with the Nazis is strongly disputed by the movie mogul's families, especially Alicia Meyer, who also disputes that such an order was given.[8]

Academy Nominations and Awards


Best Picture Warner Bros. (Henry Blanke, producer)
Best Director William Dieterle
Best Actor Paul Muni (Émile Zola)
Supporting Actor Joseph Schildkraut (Captain Alfred Dreyfus)
Best Writing, Screenplay Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine
Best Art Direction Anton Grot
Best Music, Score Max Steiner, awarded to Leo F. Forbstein
Best Sound, Recording Nathan Levinson (Warner Bros. SSD)
Best Writing, Original Story Heinz Herald and Geza Herczeg
Best Assistant Director Russ Saunders

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.[6] 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 overcautious and fearful of their place in American society.[6]


  1. Nugent, Frank S. (August 12, 1937). "Movie Review - The Life of Emile Zola". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved August 31, 2015.
  2. Flinn, John C. (June 30, 1937). "Review: The Life of Emile Zola". Variety. Retrieved August 31, 2015.
  3. "The Life of Emile Zola". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 139 August 28, 1937.
  4. Mosher, John (August 14, 1937). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 62.
  5. "Critics Vote "Emile Zola" Year's Best". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Folm Folk, Inc.: 1 January 6, 1938.
  6. 1 2 3 4 [David Denby, "Hitler in Hollywood"], The New Yorker, 16 September 2013
  7. "Scholar Asserts That Hollywood Avidly Aided Nazis". The New York Times. 25 June 2013. Retrieved 26 June 2013.; Ben Urwand, "The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler," Belknap Press, 2013. ISBN 9780674724747; C-SPAN Program, Hollywood's Pact with Hitler." by Ben Urwand: December 11. 2013
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  9. "The 10th Academy Awards (1938) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-10.
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