In the early-to-mid-1930s, Warner Bros. paid the bills with its social dramas and Busby Berkeley musicals, but like most studios it also liked to see its name attached to prestigious projects. To some extent this void was filled for Warner Bros. by the films of George Arliss, the renowned British and American stage star. His films were rather “stagey,” but generally entertaining, and his presence ensured they had class. His last film at Warner Bros. was a historical biography of Voltaire (1933), a popular film but one that the company could not immediately follow up, since Arliss moved over to Fox thereafter.
Casting about, the studio decided to turn to Paul Muni, who had scored well in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Muni would ultimately be cast in three biographical films. The first, in 1935, was The Story of Louis Pasteurl the last was Juarez in 1939. In between, Muni appeared in The Life of Emile Zola (1937) which would garner Warner Bros. its first Best Picture Academy Award.
The film covers the life of French author Emile Zola from his early days in Paris as a struggling writer, to his successful publication of “Nana,” to his adoption of the cause of military officer Alfred Dreyfus, framed by the French military command for passing secrets to Germany, through the actual Dreyfus trial and subsequent (though belated) vindication and Zola’s continued fight against injustices.
Paul Muni had already been recognized for his work in this sort of role; he won the Best Actor Academy Award for portraying the title character in The Story of Louis Pasteur. Muni was a fine actor, though somewhat inclined to overly theatrical portrayals through much of his career. He clearly relished being made up in period costume and facial make-up. Certainly he buried himself in his roles, particularly the historical figures that frequently gave him a platform for the sort of powerful, moving speeches at which he was among the best of his time. The Emile Zola role was a perfect fit in every respect, with the opportunity to dramatize Zola’s famous “J’accuse” exhortation, in which he condemns the military hierarchy, clearly a high point. Whatever one may think of Muni’s portrayal, there is no denying the sincerity and power of his efforts in that speech. Academy Awards have been won for much less. Unfortunately for Muni, he had won before, and in 1937 he came up against Spencer Tracy’s work in Captains Courageous as well.
But Muni’s work is not the only impressive aspect of the film. Directed by William Dieterle (who would team with Muni in all three of his Warner Bros. biography films), the film is a polished studio production. Dieterle carefully builds suspense after the film’s opening segment (its weakest and most derivative part). The framing of Dreyfus is clearly and efficiently sketched out, while the courtroom scenes exhibit great tension and excitement as each side attempts to solidify its case. The film builds to a natural climax with the verdict on Dreyfus, and the subsequent campaign to have the verdict reassessed. Some may find the final sequences drawn out somewhat, with a little too great an effort made at playing on the audience’s natural sympathies, but there’s some great stuff there, including a moving eulogy by Warner contract player Morris Carnovsky. Filmed almost entirely on the Warner back lot (some Devil’s Island scenes were apparently filmed on Goff Island, near Laguna Beach), the attention to detail in all aspects — costumes, props, production design (some 50 sets were constructed), lighting, and editing (somewhat relaxed compared to Warner’s more briskly-paced social dramas) — shows the capability of the studio’s efficient factory approach to film-making. Max Steiner contributed one of his typically powerful scores. The resulting look, intensity, and emotional pull of the film combine to make a potent piece of entertainment that won for it 1937’s Best Picture of the Year Academy Award recognition.
An important contributor was the entire supporting cast, which collectively was exceptional. Joseph Schildkraut excels in a nicely understated playing of Dreyfus, an effort that would see him rewarded with the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award. Otherwise, virtually all the other actors are experienced players (most Warner contractees) who do some of their very best work in roles that were second nature to many of them. Many are immediately recognizable by face, although their names may be familiar only to classic film aficionados — people such as Harry Davenport as the military Chief of Staff, Louis Calhern as Major Dort, who has a key role in framing Dreyfus, Henry O’Neill as Colonel Picquart, who tries to make the truth about Dreyfus known, Gale Sondergaard as Madame Dreyfus, Vladamir Sokoloff as Zola’s friend Paul Cezanne, Donald Crisp as Dreyfus’s defence attorney, Gloria Holden as Madame Zola, and Morris Carnovsky as Anatole France.
One must take most Hollywood biographies with a grain, if not a handful, of salt, but The Life of Emile Zola does make a reasonable effort at accuracy and completeness. The one area significantly overlooked was Alfred Dreyfus’s Jewish heritage, which the film conveniently manages to overlook, even though it was dealing with anti-Semitism. This is not surprising, given when the film was made. It would be another decade before such an issue would be addressed openly by Hollywood (in Fox’s Gentleman’s Agreement). Even without that, the film struck close enough to home that it would not be shown in France until 1952, the 50th anniversary of Zola’s death and 15 years after the film’s original release.
Warner Bros. has released the film on DVD as a Special Edition, although there is little to distinguish its level of content from other fine Warner classic releases not so identified. The presentation is correctly framed full screen, and looks quite nice. The source elements are in a little poorer shape than some of the others that Warner Bros. has had to work with; the results reflect that with a somewhat softer image with a fair bit of speckles and the odd scratch. There is, however, definite improvement in sharpness and detail over the previous laserdisc incarnation. The mono sound is quite satisfactory — clear despite some slight background hiss. The extras are very good, including two entertaining Technicolor shorts (one a musical — Romance Road, the other dramatic — The Littlest Diplomat), each contemporaneous with the film, almost 20 minutes long, and in very good condition. There is also a fun cartoon (Ain’t We Got Fun), a Lux Radio presentation starring Paul Muni, and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Paul Muni’s best work in films has been surfacing on DVD — but slowly. You have to buy a bad film (Scarface (1983)) to get his fine Scarface (1932) effort from Universal. So this first example of his biographical portrayals is doubly welcome. The fact that it comes from Warner Bros. is also fortunate — not only does that mean we get a good transfer, we also get a thoughtful package of vintage extras. Not that they’re needed in this case, because the film is top-notch entertainment in all respects and highly recommended.