The Life of Emile Zola (1937, William Dieterle)
Warner Bros., the haven in the ’30s for populist crime pictures and other breezily gritty entertainments, never really reached for prestige on the order of MGM until bringing in William Dieterle and the actor Paul Muni — considered their crown jewel ever since the magnificent I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang — for a series of unusually literate and adult-targeted biopics. Unlike the highly influential The Story of Louis Pasteur, for which Muni received the acting Oscar, the follow-up The Life of Emile Zola has worn surprisingly well over the years and is admirable in its restraint and the care taken with its historical context. It might be a bit staid as a drama, but it has something of value to say to an audience on the eve of grave crisis; while distinctly American, it also presents its French characters, locations and subject matter with considerable respect if not accuracy — which counts for something when compared to MGM’s bright, hollow Berlin in Grand Hotel.
Parisian writer Zola isn’t generally a household name in the U.S. now but he was a heroic crusader for the disenfranchised in his time; it can easily be argued that painter Paul Cézanne, Zola’s close friend depicted here who eventually rebuffs him for indulging in privilege, is today far more famous — but the movie’s great success is in introducing and elaborating upon him as an individual and a beacon of empathy and importance. Of course, there’s nearly always a central failing in the story structure of any biopic, and this is no exception; after a quite warm and lovely first act that sees Zola acquiring and sustaining his first success as an author, the film essentially ceases to be about him in any real sense — for the entirety of its last two thirds, it’s really the story of the Dreyfus affair, told with uncompromised detail and directness and even a touch of wit by Dieterle, who possesses a keen eye for the causes and effects of injustice. Despite the charm of Muni’s contributions as Zola, a straightforward retelling of Dreyfus’ plight might well have made a better film overall; it’s so fascinating and strange as to render the contextual information about Zola’s life before and (briefly) afterward wholly unnecessary. The true heart of Emile Zola is not a biography picture starring Muni but an ensemble in which Muni is one of many vital figures.
The entertainment value is likely to be greater, ironically, in America today, where the Dreyfus affair is once again no longer a widely accepted piece of early cultural literacy. Dreyfus was a French captain in the army who happened to be Jewish, and who unwittingly became the center of a decades-spanning political scandal when he was blamed and jailed for an unfounded accusation of treason on the basis of little to no evidence. It took years for any consequence to develop, but ultimately Zola was one of many convinced that Dreyfus had been artificially framed and took the initiative of writing a lengthy accusatory letter, “J’Accuse” (which the movie somewhat tepidly changes to “I Accuse”), on the front page of L’Aurore in 1898. This inevitably resulted in Zola’s own trial for treason — but also opened the floodgates for Dreyfus to be exonerated and to live on a free man to serve in the French army during the Great War. Unfettered by excess and sentimentality, Dieterle approaches all of this in a brilliantly straightforward fashion never previously seen in a Hollywood treatment of historical truth, and in this respect most of all The Life of Emile Zola provides us with its worthy legacy. Oscar winner Joseph Schildkraut is heartbreaking as Dreyfus himself, and the cross-cut sequences of his prison term with the continued conspiracy of the Army evoke nothing less than Paths of Glory for their uncompromising treatment of crass injustice, even if Warner Bros. somewhat whitewashes the antisemitic origins of Dreyfus’ banishment.
The Dreyfus affair balloons up and overtakes the narrative of the picture, and Dieterle and the studio fail to mesh everything together coherently; we find ourselves by the midpoint caring far more about the army’s coverup and Dreyfus’ family than we do about anything Zola’s doing, even as Muni’s fat-and-happy performance grows increasingly expressive. Yet it’s a difficult proposition to sacrifice the beautiful early scenes in which Muni joyfully enacts Zola’s experience of first discovering his own success as a writer from no one less direct than a bookseller. Less necessary is the coda involving forced irony about Zola’s death at the hands of smoke inhalation because of a clogged chimney — setting up a labored rhyme with Zola’s early insistence on leaving windows closed despite smoke from burning pages. But no matter; even if The Life of Emile Zola tackles too much, it still manages more resonance at its best than nearly all other Hollywood biopics.
Muni’s histrionics are less fashionable now and will bother some, but after a few moments he surpasses the staginess of early scenes on pure charm; in subtle moments he can be illuminating and moving, in broader and more explosive scenes he’s enjoyably suggestive of Orson Welles. But the Muni performance to see, in which no makeup or artificial aging distracts from the purity of his feeling, is I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Still, it’s Muni who anchors the courtroom scenes with easy spontaneity and a surprisingly keen voice for some of the speechifying handed to him by the script. We can thank him for helping make the midsection of this film one of the first strong courtroom dramas in Hollywood cinema — and really, we can thank Dieterle for (despite the odd structure of the film) offering the same with the welcome window dressing of the loving and incisive portrait of an author’s early years, an author we’re made to feel impressed by not as an oblique distant figure but one of our own. Don’t dodge The Life of Emile Zola for fear of a dull historical picture — just as you’d expect and hope from Warners, it’s more relevant and intriguing to us than it likely could be in other hands.