|The Life of Emile Zola|
|Directed by||William Dieterle|
|Produced by||Henry Blanke|
|Screenplay by|| Heinz Herald |
Norman Reilly Raine
|Story by||Heinz Herald|
|Based on||Zola and His Time|
by Matthew Josephson
|Starring|| Paul Muni |
|Music by||Max Steiner|
|Edited by||Warren Low|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros. Pictures|
The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about 19th-century French author Émile Zola, starring Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle, a German émigré. It is notable as the second biographical film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It premiered at the Los Angeles Carthay Circle Theatre to great success both critically and financially. Contemporary reviews ranked it as 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".
Produced during the Great Depression and after the Nazi Party had taken power in Germany, the film failed to explore the key issue of anti-Semitic injustice in France in the late 19th century, when Zola became involved in the Dreyfus affair and worked to gain the officer's release. Early 21st-century studies noted this film as an example of Hollywood's timidity at the time: anti-Semitism was never mentioned in the film, nor was "Jew" said in dialogue. Some explicitly anti-Nazi films were cancelled in this period, and other content was modified. This was also the period when Hollywood had established the Production Code, establishing an internal censor, in response to perceived threats of external censorship.
Set in the mid through late 19th century, the film depicts Zola's early friendship with Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, and his rise to fame through his prolific writing. It explores his involvement late in the Dreyfus affair.
In 1862 Paris, struggling writer Émile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a drafty Paris attic with his friend, painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). His fiancé Alexandrine procures him a desk clerk job at a bookshop, however he is soon fired after he arouses the ire of his employer and an agent of police with his provocative novel, The Confessions of Claude. He then witnesses many injustices in French society, such as a crowded river slum, unlawful mining conditions and corruption in the French army and government. Finally, 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.
In spite of the pleading of the chief censor, Zola writes other successful books, such as The Downfall, a scathing denunciation of the French High Command whose blunders and disunity led to a disastrous defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. He becomes rich and famous, 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 accuses Zola of having become complacent because of his success, a far cry from the zealous reformer of his youth and terminates their friendship.
Meanwhile, a French secret agent steals a letter addressed to the military attaché in the German embassy. The letter confirms there is a spy within the French General Staff. With little thought, the army commanders decide that Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) is the traitor. He is court-martialed, publicly degraded and imprisoned on Devil's Island in French Guiana.
Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat), an infantry officer of Hungarian descent, as the spy. But Picquart is ordered by his superiors to remain silent to avert official embarrassment and he is quickly reassigned to a remote post.
Four years have passed since Dreyfus's degradation. 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. He publishes an open letter, known as "J'accuse", in the newspaper L'Aurore accusing the High Command of covering up the monstrous injustice, which causes a firestorm up and down Paris. Zola barely escapes from an angry mob incited by military agents provocateurs as riots erupt in the city streets.
As expected, Zola is charged with libel. His attorney, Maitre Labori (Donald Crisp) does his best against the presiding judge's refusal to allow him to introduce evidence about the Dreyfus affair and the perjury and biased testimony committed by all the military witnesses, except for Picquart. Zola is found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison and a 3000 Franc fine. He reluctantly accepts his friends' advice to avoid risk of becoming a martyr and instead flee to London, England, to continue the campaign on behalf of Dreyfus.
With the demand for justice reaching a worldwide level, a new French Army administration finally proclaims that Dreyfus is innocent; those responsible for the cover-up are dismissed or commit suicide. 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 and inducted into the Legion of Honor. His body is buried in the Pantheon in Paris, to a hero and warrior's farewell.
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."
Variety said it was "a vibrant, tense and emotional story ... It is finely made and merits high rating as cinema art and significant recognition as major showmanship."Harrison's Reports described it as "A dignified, powerful, and at times stirring historical drama, brilliantly directed, and superbly acted by Paul Muni, as Zola, the great French writer." John Mosher of The New Yorker praised it as "a picture of considerable distinction" with "no nonsense." The Life of Emile Zola topped Film Daily's year-end poll of 531 critics as the best film of 1937.
Writing for Night and Day , Graham Greene gave the film a neutral review, noting that despite its inaccuracies, "truth to the film mind is the word you see on news-posters". Greene commented that appearances from seemingly significant characters like Cézanne were largely irrelevant to the plot and that all of the events in the film happen suddenly.
Certain scenes were interpreted at the time as "indirect attacks on Nazi Germany."As David Denby writes about the movie in 2013, "At the end, in an outpouring of the progressive rhetoric that was typical of the thirties, Zola makes a grandiloquent speech on behalf of justice and truth and against nationalist war frenzy." But the film was curiously silent about the issue at its core: that Dreyfus was Jewish and being persecuted under French anti-Semitism.
The French government allegedly banned the movie in 1939, possibly because of the sensitivity of the Dreyfus affair.
At the 10th Academy Awards, the film received ten nominations (and thereby became the first film in Academy Award history to reach double digits for nominations) and won three 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|
In 2013, two academic books were published on Hollywood in this period, which had been studied by other scholars in the early 21st century. The works by Australian Ben Urwand and American Thomas Doherty explored Hollywood's response to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and reassessed this movie in that context. Critic David Denby wrote a long overview article about the issue in The New Yorker. In his book titled The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler, Urwand said that Hollywood producers made a kind of pact in order to avoid antagonizing Adolf Hitler and aided the Nazis by not producing films that accurately portrayed their repression in Europe. "The studios cancelled several explicitly anti-Nazi films planned for production, and deleted from several other movies anything that could be construed as critical of the Nazis, along with anything that might be seen as favorable to the Jews—or even a simple acknowledgment that they existed."
Urwand writes that studio head Jack L. Warner, a Jew, personally ordered the word 'Jew' to be excised from all the dialogue in this film about Zola, although the writer was known for taking up the cause of Dreyfus, who was Jewish. Dreyfus is widely known for having been the subject of anti-Semitic discrimination by the French Army. In addition, Urwand wrote that Georg Gyssling, the Nazi consul to the United States in Los Angeles, occasionally was allowed to review and make recommendations on films before they were released, and producers sometimes required changes based on his comments.
Urwand's thesis that Warner was collaborating with the Nazis was strongly disputed by the producer's family members, especially Alicia Meyer.
Doherty's study, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, provides a wider view and more context.Denby wrote that while Doherty supports some of Urwand's thesis, he provides more context for the studios' behavior, setting it against the political culture of the period. The studios were under social pressure during the Great Depression to produce movies that helped the United States weather this crisis. There were fears of political radicalism in the US while European movements, from the Nazis to Communism in the Soviet Union, were considered threats.
In this same period, when Urwand says the producers allowed Gyssling to review and comment on films, Doherty refers to the broader cultural issues the studios were facing. They independently set up an association office to develop a Production Code to support suitable content, in order to avoid having censorship imposed by Congress or local governments. They had been criticized on moral grounds for the personal relationships portrayed in some movies, for instance, for sexual content or suggestive dialogue, and for political criticism of the US. They appointed Will H. Hays as director of the new office. He hired a Catholic layman, Joseph I. Breen as "censor-in-chief." After 1934 Breen had even more influence over movies. Denby concluded that the mostly Jewish studio heads were acting as businessmen, both in regard to the Production Code and in relations with Germany. He believes they demonstrated timidity and were sometimes overcautious, appearing to be fearful of their place in American society.
Émile Édouard Charles Antoine Zola was a French novelist, journalist, playwright, the best-known practitioner of the literary school of naturalism, and an important contributor to the development of theatrical naturalism. According to major Zola scholar and biographer Henri Mitterand, "Naturalism contributes something more than realism: the attention brought to bear on the most lush and opulent aspects of people and the natural world. The realist writer reproduces the object's image impersonally, while the naturalist writer is an artist of temperament." He was a major figure in the political liberalization of France and in the exoneration of the falsely accused and convicted army officer Alfred Dreyfus, which is encapsulated in the renowned newspaper headline J'Accuse…! Zola was nominated for the first and second Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901 and 1902.
Paul Muni was an Austro-Hungarian-born American stage and film actor who grew up in Chicago. Muni was a five-time Academy Award nominee, with one win. He started his acting career in the Yiddish theater. During the 1930s, he was considered one of the most prestigious actors at the Warner Bros. studio, and was given the rare privilege of choosing which parts he wanted.
The Dreyfus affair was a political scandal that divided the Third French Republic from 1894 until its resolution in 1906. "L'Affaire", as it is known in French, has come to symbolise modern injustice in the Francophone world, and it remains one of the most notable examples of a complex miscarriage of justice and antisemitism. The role played by the press and public opinion proved influential in the conflict.
Alfred Dreyfus was a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most controversial and polarizing political dramas in modern French history. The incident has gone down in history as the Dreyfus Affair, the reverberations from which were felt throughout Europe. It ultimately ended with Dreyfus's complete exoneration.
Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was an officer in the French Army from 1870 to 1898. He gained notoriety as a spy for the German Empire and the actual perpetrator of the act of treason of which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused and convicted in 1894.
While Alfred Dreyfus was serving his sentence on Devil's Island, in France a number of people began to question his guilt. The most notable of these was Major Georges Picquart.
Marie-Georges Picquart was a French Army officer and Minister of War. He is best known for his role in the Dreyfus Affair.
Prisoner of Honor is a 1991 British made-for-television drama film directed by Ken Russell and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Oliver Reed and Peter Firth. It was made by Warner Bros. Television and distributed by HBO, and centers on the famous Dreyfus Affair. Richard Dreyfuss co-produced the film with Judith James, from a screenplay by Ron Hutchinson.
Hubert-Joseph Henry was a French Lieutenant-Colonel in 1897 involved in the Dreyfus affair. Arrested for having forged evidence against Alfred Dreyfus, he was found dead in his prison cell. He was considered a hero by the Anti-Dreyfusards.
Henry Blanke was a German-born film producer who also worked as an assistant director, supervisor, writer, and production manager. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture for The Nun’s Story (1959).
Médan is a village in the Yvelines department, Île-de-France region, in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, France, about 25 km from the capital. Inhabitants of Médan are called Médanais.
Dreyfus is a 1930 German drama film directed by Richard Oswald and starring Fritz Kortner, Grete Mosheim, and Heinrich George.
Dreyfus is a 1931 British film on the Dreyfus affair, translated from the play by Wilhelm Herzog and Hans Rehfisch and the 1930 German film Dreyfus. It features George Zucco in his film debut.
I Accuse! is a British-American 1958 CinemaScope biographical drama film directed by and starring José Ferrer. The film is based on the true story of the Dreyfus Case, in which a Jewish captain in the French Army was falsely accused of treason.
Ludovic Trarieux was a French Republican statesman, prominent Dreyfusard, and pioneer of international human rights.
Charles Armand Auguste Ferdinand Mercier du Paty de Clam was a French army officer, an amateur graphologist, and a key figure in the Dreyfus affair.
Auguste Scheurer-Kestner was a chemist, industrialist, a Protestant and an Alsatian politician. He was the uncle by marriage of the wife of Jules Ferry.
George Gabriel de Pellieux was a French army officer who was best known for ignoring evidence during the Dreyfus affair, a scandal in which a Jewish officer was convicted of treason on the basis of a forgery.
Cézanne and I is a 2016 French biographical drama film based on the friendship between 19th century novelist Émile Zola and painter Paul Cézanne. The film was written and directed by Danièle Thompson; it stars Guillaume Canet, Guillaume Gallienne, Alice Pol, Déborah François and Sabine Azéma. It was named as one of four films on the shortlist for the French submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards.
The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler is a 2013 non-fiction book by Ben Urwand. It was published on September 9, 2013 by Belknap Press, an imprint of Harvard University Press. It is about cooperation between 1930s U.S. filmmakers and Nazi Germany.
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