*The Life of Emile Zola (1937)*

lifeofemilezolaposter

Starring: Paul Muni, Gloria Holden, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Donald Crisp

Director: William Dieterle

Summary: The famed writer risks his reputation to defend a Jewish army officer accused of treason

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Muni), Supporting Actor (Schildkraut)*, Story, Adapted Screenplay*, Score, Art Direction, Sound Recording, Assistant Director

Positives

-Great screenplay that is well-paced, has a great narrative for the title character, along with a powerful and still-relevant story. Zola’s character arc is an effective one, as fights his way to the top of the literary world, and then must decide whether he wants to risk it all or end up betraying his own principles. While some important themes may have been brushed aside, the ones that are there are strong. The ones that spoke to me is the danger of unquestioned devotion to the rightness and greatness of the military (looking at you Michael Bay), along with how the media can either be a sword on the side of the public against corruption, or it can be a shield to protect those who have done wrong.

-Muni is great as Zola, consistently entertaining and impassioned without being over-the-top. One of the better lead performances so far

-About as accurate as you can expect from a biopic-while it adds an internal crisis of conscience that may or may not have existed, the events of the Dreyfus Affair and his involvement are essentially as presented.

Negatives

-Anti-semitism was an important (and very relevant at the time) theme to the story that should have been explored but was almost totally ignored due to the political climate at the time, as well as the Production Code Authority. In 1937, there were still many in the U.S. sympathetic to the Nazis and anti-semitism was very common, and the gatekeeper for all films, Joseph Breen, was himself an anti-semite who probably would not have passed the movie. While I can understand why they didn’t include it, the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish at a time of rampant anti-semitism in France was the main reason why he was chosen as a scapegoat. Ignoring such a critical aspect of the story for reasons of political expediency makes this an incomplete and tainted account.

Overall

Very good biopic that probably would have been great if not for studio cowardice. Still worth a watch though.

Rating: B+

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