The Life of Emile Zola

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

October 25, 2019   |  by Shannon

Movie poster for The Life of Emile Zola (1937). I love how this poster channels the stye of artwork prevalent during Zola's life: Impressionism! It's my favorite art movement.

Most film buffs would agree that The Life of Emile Zola (1937) was the crown jewel of Paul Muni’s career.  Based on the life of the renowned French writer of the title, Muni plays Zola as a young man, middle-aged man, and an older man in the film.  Muni’s seamless and utterly believable transition between each of these ages alone makes his performance in The Life of Emile Zola one to be applauded and recognized!

You can purchase The Life of Emile Zola here on Amazon [aff. link], or watch it on tcm.com through Sunday.

Before we delve into the plot, I have to say that this film was particularly fun for me to watch because just last year I had the amazing opportunity to walk the streets of Paris and its Montmartre neighborhood.  Emile Zola spent his life and career in Paris, including Montmartre (he was even buried there initially!), at the time that Montmartre was an artistically thriving community of (often impoverished) writers and artists. 

A cold autumn day in Paris! Me in Montmartre last year. The very top of the historic Sacre Coeur basilica can be seen in the background. I can't wait to go back!

As I watched The Life of Emile Zola for the first time this week, I couldn’t help but be transported back to Montmartre, and all the amazing, artistically significant landmarks and sites I witnessed, from the exact spot where Toulouse-Lautrec painted his friend Vincent Van Gough, to the cafe that inspired Picasso’s blue period, or the home where Claude Monet raised his family! 

The beautiful Sacre Coeur basilica in Montmartre.

These men were contemporaries of Zola, and I can’t wait to go back to Montmartre after watching Paul Muni bring this amazing writer to life for me on the big screen.  The Life of Emile Zola warmed my heart by connecting three things I love: Classic Hollywood, history, and Paris! Ok, thanks for indulging me. Let’s get to the plot!

Muni as young Emile Zola in the film.

The Plot

Pretty simple, straightforward storyline. The Life of Emile Zola (1937) is, as I mentioned (and as the title suggests!) a biographical film about the great French writer.  Set in the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, Muni plays Zola, first as a young man struggling to earn a living while staying true to his art.  We see Zola’s friendship with the artist Paul Cezanne (played by Vladimir Sokoloff), who Zola was best buds with in real life!  (What a fun piece of history is that?!!!)

Paul Cezanne painted this portrait of himself (left) and Zola (right). Their friendship is highlighted in The Life of Emile Zola (1937).

We watch as the young Zola weds his sweetheart, Alexandrine (Gloria Holden), and finally becomes a success with the publication of his novel Nana.  The success of Nana brings about the financial security Zola has desperately hoped for, and he continues to write quite prolifically, becoming very wealthy over the years.

Zola (left), after getting comfortable with his new wealthy lifestyle, is reminded of his roots by good friend Cezanne (right).

Complacency

As a middle-aged man who’s tasted great success, Zola is warned by his good friend Cezanne that he’s grown complacent, something an artist should never do:

“You’ve come a long way from the days when we started together in an attic…Emile, an artist should remain poor. Otherwise his talent, like his stomach, grows fat and stuffy.”

It’s almost the call to action Zola needs.  He continues writing, but he’s not taking the risks he once took when he was a young man with nothing to lose.

Claude Monet's famous oil on canvas, "The Waterlily Pond" (1899). Monet was the inspiration for the character Claude Lantier in Zola's novel, L'oeuvre (1886).

That all changes when Zola heeds the words of Cezanne, and takes a risk by speaking out about the injustice of the Dreyfus Affair.  In so doing, Zola sets himself up for a charge of libel. 

Have you heard of the Dreyfus Affair?  Probably not, unless you have a passion and deep knowledge of French history!  Zola’s involvement in this watershed case makes up the bulk of the film, and it’s one of the reasons why The Life of Emile Zola isn’t your run of the mill biographical movie.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut) and wife Lucie (Gale Sondergaard) receive a letter from the higher ups in the French Army summoning Dreyfus to come in for questioning. Little does Dreyfus know what he's about to be wrongfully accused of.

The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair began in 1894 when it was discovered that there was a traitor in the French Army, a spy sharing French military secrets and strategy with the Germans.  French Army officials quickly decided that the spy had to be Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  The evidence behind their reasoning?  The fact that Dreyfus was Jewish.

That’s right, there was no actual evidence that Captain Dreyfus was in any way connected with, or guilty of, sharing military secrets with the Germans.  So this poor, innocent man, a victim of anti-Semitism, was court marshaled and sent to Devil’s Island, a penal colony in French Guiana, for punishment.  Again, no evidence against him, Dreyfus was found guilty because he was Jewish. True story.

Dreyfus is punished for a crime he didn't commit. He spends years in solitary confinement on Devil's Island before Zola takes up his cause.

"J' Accuse...!"

In the film, we see Dreyfus spend 4 years on Devil’s Island.  Then, Zola takes up his pen, and publishes his famous open letter, “J’accuse.” (Yes!!!!  I know you’ve heard the “J’accuse!” or “I accuse!” referenced in pop culture. And now you know that Emile Zola coined the phrase!)

Zola's open letter accusing the French Army administration of wrongfully convicting Dreyfus was published in the French paper L'Aurore.

In his letter, Zola accuses the higher ups in the French army of wrongfully charging Dreyfus, and then trying to cover up their mistake.  As a result, Zola is charged with libel.  Worse, when Zola’s case is heard in court, the judge rules that The Dreyfus Affair cannot be mentioned…so Zola’s attorney basically has no chance whatsoever of arguing his client’s case.  Zola is found guilty, fined 3000 francs, and sentenced to a year in prison.

A frustrating trial. Zola tries to strategize with his attorney, but it's impossible to argue when the Dreyfus Affair is banned from discussion in the courtroom.

"The Truth Marches On"

Remember, Zola is in his 60s by now, an older man by the standards of the time, so to avoid dying in prison—and having his voice silenced—Zola escapes to England, where he continues to write, bringing more attention to the Dreyfus case so it cannot be ignored.

Thanks to Zola’s efforts, the Dreyfus case is revisited when a new French Army administration is put in place.  The new administration finds Dreyfus innocent, so Zola can now go safely back to Paris!

The charges against Zola are dropped, and he's back in Paris with wife Alexandrine. But Zola only has a short time to enjoy his happiness...

The End

It’d be a great, happy ending if that was it, and the film stopped right there, wouldn’t it?  Well, since the movie is based on real life, it unfortunately doesn’t end that perfectly.  Not long after returning to the Paris he loves, Zola dies from carbon monoxide poisoning in his home.  Totally accidental, no foul play, just terrible, terrible timing.  (As if there was ever a good time for that to happen, but you know what I mean.)

It’s a sad ending to the film because Zola dies before he has the chance to see Dreyfus publically exonerated.  At the same time, it’s an uplifting ending because the injustice of the Dreyfus case is righted, and Captain Dreyfus can go back to his wife, family, and life, all because Zola had the courage to speak up for what was right and true.

A Role Only Muni Could Play

The script for The Life of Emile Zola was initially presented to the great Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount studios.  Lubitsch knew a good story when he saw one, and could tell right away that Zola would be an amazing film.  But he had the artistic integrity to tell the scriptwriters to take their treatment to Warner Brothers—Lubitsch knew there was only one actor worthy of the title role.  That actor was Paul Muni.

Thanks to Lubitsch, Zola was brought to Warner Brothers, and Muni began his (as usual) intense preparations for the role of a lifetime.

Yes, yes, I know it's a seemingly random pic, but I had to include this beautiful shot of Gale Sondergaard, who plays Lucie Dreyfus in the film. Hey, there isn't a lot of glamour in The Life of Emile Zola, so you've got to indulge me a little here! (:

Muni Does His Research

To research his role, Paul Muni read everything about Emile Zola he could get his hands on!  Muni was so detailed in his research, he found rare sources describing how Zola walked, laughed, even how Zola tucked his napkin into his collar at the dinner table!  These were all things that Muni incorporated into his portrayal of Zola on the screen.  Pretty cool!

Muni adopted Zola mannerisms that he discovered during his intense research of Zola's life.

But even after discovering all these very detailed, minute Zola characteristics, Muni still wanted more.  So he went to the Warner Brothers research department.  The research department responded that they’d already given Muni everything they could possibly find on Emile Zola.  To which Muni responded,

“I think I know about Zola now. Almost.  Almost.  Now I want to know something about his ancestors.”

WOW!!!!  Talk about back story and getting into character!!  Paul Muni was nothing if not detail-oriented.

Young Cezanne and Zola in a Parisian cafe with Nana, who would inspire Zola's first financially successful publication.

A Real Pro

To play Zola as a young, middle-aged, and older man, Muni used his great experience and expertise with make-up to compliment his fine acting and research of Zola.  Muni decided that the only way to really look like Zola—who had varying degrees of facial hair throughout his life—was to do it for real: Muni grew his own beard! But this complicated filming, for Zola had much more facial hair as an older gentleman than as a young man. So The Life of Emile Zola was filmed in reverse, starting with Muni sporting a full, graying beard as an older Zola, and then trimming that beard and taking gray out as they got to filming the younger Zola scenes at the beginning of the film. 

The beard!!! Muni insisted on using his own beard for authenticity. It was a great idea, but meant that the film had to be shot in reverse order!

Another interesting thing to note: Muni was only in his early 40s when Zola was filmed, yet he convincing played a man more than twenty years older for the majority of the film.  It took 3 ½ hours of make-up each morning to achieve the look of an older Emile Zola, but Muni was up for the challenge, and transformed himself brilliantly.

To underscore this complete physical transformation Muni underwent each morning before filming, don’t forget that Bordertown (1935), which I reviewed last week, was released only two years before The Life of Emile Zola (1937). 

Muni in 1935’s Bordertown.  This is probably pretty close to what he looked like in everyday life at the time.  Compare Muni’s natural 1930’s look to his appearance in The Life of Emile Zolareleased a mere two years later:

WOW!!!  What a master of makeup Muni was!  Can you believe the transformation??!!

Timeliness of the Film

AlthoughThe Life of Emile Zola was set in the mid 19thto early 20thcenturies, the film was made and released at a time when tensions and Nazi power were rising in Europe.  World War II would start just two years after Zola was released, so the messages in the film were extremely relevant: speak for truth, fight for justice, and of course, anti-Semitism is not acceptable.

Despite the fact that the crux of The Life of Emile Zola rests on proving the innocence of a man wrongly accused of something because he is Jewish, no one in the film actually says “Jew,” or any derivative of the word, during the entire course of the film.  Besides a few insinuations made by other characters at various times, the only other indication we have that Dreyfus is Jewish is a split second camera shot of the list of potential spy names that the French Army administration makes up. Right under the name “Joseph Dreyfus” on the list is the word “Jewish.”  Again, it’s a split second shot.  Blink and you miss it.  Interesting.

Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Brothers Studios. Although Jewish himself, Warner reportedly banned the use of the word "Jew" in The Life of Emile Zola (1937).

Reportedly, Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers Studios, sent out a memo requiring that the word “Jew” not be said by any character in The Life of Emile Zola. Warner himself was Jewish, so it’s fascinating to speculate what his motivation behind avoiding the word could have been.

Some film historians believe that Jewish studio heads like Jack Warner (Warner Brothers) and Louis B. Mayer (MGM) feared Nazi retaliation if films released by their studios appeared too pro-Jewish in Nazi eyes.  Studio heads also feared that films sympathetic to Jews would not do well overseas.  Even though these studio moguls were Jewish themselves, they often put shrewd business decisions above all else.  Perhaps Warner was hoping to make a film that showed the ugliness of anti-Semitism without being so overt as to loose business, or potentially put a target on his back as Nazi Germany gained power overseas?  Interesting to speculate about.

Homage to a Great Actor

As I close this post on The Life of Emile Zola, it’s also time to say goodbye to our October Star of the Month, Paul Muni.  Of all the stars I have had the privilege to write about this year, Muni is by far the star I learned the most about.  This month has been really fascinating for me as I discovered more about this very talented, very private, and too often overlooked actor through my research and his films.

I think Muni’s good friend and Zola director, William Dieterle, best puts to words how to end both this post on The Life of Emile Zola, and this month celebrating Paul Muni:

“There was no harder worker in Hollywood than Paul Muni.  Once he started a picture, that was his life.  He wasn’t satisfied merely resembling Pasteur or Zola physically.  He wasn’t content until he could think as they thought and feel as they felt.”

“He was a thorough man, a thoughtful, sensitive man.  That’s why he was easy to direct. You didn’t have to tell him what to do.  He knew…He was a totally unselfish man.  I never saw him try to steal a scene.  And when the picture was completed, he gave credit to everyone but himself.  After the preview of Zola, I went home to find a long telegram from him thanking me for making it.  From the wire, you would have thought he had nothing to do with the film, and that the preview audience liked it for the photography, the writing, the direction, and the performances of every player but Paul Muni.”

Now that’s a class act!  Be sure to check out the TCM film calendar for the last few Muni films playing this month on Monday.

And don’t forget to join me next week!  Next Friday, I’m so excited to usher in the great Bette Davis, who we will celebrate all November.  Stay tuned!!

Can't write about Paris without including an Eiffel Tower pic, right? My favorite photo capture from my breathtaking evening tour of this iconic French landmark last year.

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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