The Life of Emile Zola

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".

The Life of Emile Zola
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Dieterle
Produced byHenry Blanke
Screenplay byHeinz Herald
Geza Herczeg
Norman Reilly Raine
Story byHeinz Herald
Geza Herczeg
Based onZola and His Time
by Matthew Josephson
StarringPaul Muni
Gloria Holden
Gale Sondergaard
Joseph Schildkraut
Music byMax Steiner
CinematographyTony Gaudio
Edited byWarren Low
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • August 11, 1937 (1937-08-11)
Running time
116 minutes
CountryUnited States

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 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. He is court-martialed, publicly degraded and imprisoned on Devil's Island in then-French Guiana.

Later, Colonel Picquart (Henry O'Neill), the new chief of intelligence, discovers evidence implicating Major Walsin-Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) as the spy. But Picquart is ordered by his superiors to remain silent to avert official embarrassment and he is quickly reassigned to a distant post.

4 years have passed. 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 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.


Actor Character Notes
Paul Muni Émile Zola Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor
Gloria Holden Alexandrine Zola
Gale Sondergaard Lucie Dreyfus
Joseph Schildkraut Captain Alfred Dreyfus Won the Academy Award for Best 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 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."[2] 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."[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 were interpreted at the time as "indirect attacks on Nazi Germany."[6] 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.[6]

The French government allegedly banned the movie in 1939, possibly because of the sensitivity of the Dreyfus affair.[7]

Academy Award wins and nominations


Category Person Outcome
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 about collaboration

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."[6]

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.[9][10]

Urwand's thesis that Warner was collaborating with the Nazis was strongly disputed by the producer's family members, especially Alicia Meyer. She disputes that he ever gave an order about taking "Jew" out of dialogue in the film about Zola.[11]

Doherty's study, Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, provides a wider view and more context.[6] 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.[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. Denby, David (16 September 2013). "Hitler in Hollywood". The New Yorker.
  7. Meisler, Stanley (30 October 1986). "Statue Needs a Home : The Dreyfus Affair--It Never Dies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  8. "The 10th Academy Awards (1938) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-10.
  9. "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
  10. "Hollywood's Pact with Hitler." by Ben Urwand, C-SPAN Program, 11 December 2013
  11. "A Rebuttal to Ben Urwand and The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler". 21 August 2013.
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