The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

123 mins | Drama | 2 October 1937

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HISTORY

The real life Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer of Jewish heritage who was convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil's Island. An investigation, inspired by Émile Zola's articles, proved that Dreyfus had been convicted by papers which were forged by Major Esterházy and Lieut. Col. Henry. After his conviction was set aside in 1906, Dreyfus was restored to rank in the army and received the Legion of Honor. A news item in HR dated 17 Feb 1937 notes that Bette Davis was interested in the role of Nana. According to modern sources, Warner Bros. did not want her to play such a small role. News items in HR note that Dorothy Stickney and Josephine Hutchinson were considered for the role of Lucie. According to a press release, the studio built fifty different sets including the Pantheon in Paris, the Ecole Militaire, Les Halles and Zola's apartment. The Devil's Island scenes were filmed on location on Goff Island in Laguna Beach.
       Muni's niece, Dolores Weisenfreund, made her theatrical debut in this film. The film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, won awards for Best Supporting Actor, (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Screenplay and for Best Picture, the first Warner Bros. film to be so honored. It was chosen as best picture by the N.Y. Film Critics who also named Muni as best actor. The National Board of Review, FD and NYT picked the film as one of the year's best. According to Hal Wallis's autobiography, Matthew Josephson, author of a biography of Zola, charged Warner Bros. with plagarism. Several scenes were reshot because they ... More Less

The real life Alfred Dreyfus was a French army officer of Jewish heritage who was convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil's Island. An investigation, inspired by Émile Zola's articles, proved that Dreyfus had been convicted by papers which were forged by Major Esterházy and Lieut. Col. Henry. After his conviction was set aside in 1906, Dreyfus was restored to rank in the army and received the Legion of Honor. A news item in HR dated 17 Feb 1937 notes that Bette Davis was interested in the role of Nana. According to modern sources, Warner Bros. did not want her to play such a small role. News items in HR note that Dorothy Stickney and Josephine Hutchinson were considered for the role of Lucie. According to a press release, the studio built fifty different sets including the Pantheon in Paris, the Ecole Militaire, Les Halles and Zola's apartment. The Devil's Island scenes were filmed on location on Goff Island in Laguna Beach.
       Muni's niece, Dolores Weisenfreund, made her theatrical debut in this film. The film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, won awards for Best Supporting Actor, (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Screenplay and for Best Picture, the first Warner Bros. film to be so honored. It was chosen as best picture by the N.Y. Film Critics who also named Muni as best actor. The National Board of Review, FD and NYT picked the film as one of the year's best. According to Hal Wallis's autobiography, Matthew Josephson, author of a biography of Zola, charged Warner Bros. with plagarism. Several scenes were reshot because they were thought to be too close to Josephson's book. Nonetheless, Warner Bros. bought the rights to the book and mentioned it in the credits. Then a German playwright named Hans Rehfisch claimed that his play The Dreyfus Affair had been stolen by Heinz Herald. Herald admitted familiarity with the play and eventually Rehfisch received a small cash settlement. Modern sources mention the controversial nature of the film which, although it dealt with anti-Semitism, never mentioned the fact that Dreyfus was Jewish. It was not shown in France until the fiftieth anniversary of Zola's death in 1952 and even then it required the consent of four French ministries before it could be shown.
       In 1931, Columbia released the British film, The Dreyfus Case , based on the Rehfisch play, which starred Cedric Hardwicke and was directed by F. W. Kraemer and Milton Rosmer. In 1958 M-G-M released I Accuse! , based on the Dreyfus case and the non-fiction book by Nicholas Halasz, with a screenplay by Gore Vidal. That film was directed by Josè Ferrer, who also starred as Dreyfus. The 1954 short documentary Zola , by French director Jean Zola also dealt with the case. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
29 Jun 37
p. 3.
Film Daily
2 Jul 37
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Feb 37
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Feb 37
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Mar 37
p. 1.
Motion Picture Daily
1 Jul 1937.
---
Motion Picture Daily
12 Aug 37
pp. 1-2.
Motion Picture Herald
10 Jul 37
p. 50.
New York Times
12 Aug 37
p. 14.
Variety
30 Jun 37
p. 21.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dial dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Exec prod
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Photog
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
COSTUMES
Cost
MUSIC
MAKEUP
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Press representative
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the book Zola and His Time by Matthew Josephson (New York, 1928).
DETAILS
Release Date:
2 October 1937
Copyright Claimant:
Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.
Copyright Date:
14 July 1937
Copyright Number:
LP7422
Physical Properties:
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
123
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
3212
SYNOPSIS

Struggling writer Emile Zola and painter Paul Cezanne share a drafty garret. Zola's mother gets him a job with a publisher enabling him to marry Alexandrine, but the couple are still very poor. When Zola's book The Confessions of Claude is published, its criticisms of city officials attract the attention of the police and cost him his job. Zola continues to write about corruption and the hard lives of the people, but there is not much interest in his books until he meets a prostitute, Nana, and writes her story. The publication of Nana makes Zola a success at last and each new book adds to his fame. Finally, it is announced that Zola is to receive the Legion of Honor. Cezanne visits the Zolas before he leaves for the South and warns Zola not to become fat and complacent in his work. Meanwhile, French army secrets have been passed to the Germans, and Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, has been accused of the crime. Although he protests his innocence and evidence points to Count Walsin-Esterházy, Dreyfus is convicted and sentenced to Devil's Island. Dreyfus' wife Lucie vows to clear her husband's name. She visits Zola to beg him to help her, but he sends her away, saying that his fighting days are over. However, he starts to read the evidence that Lucie has left behind and, remembering Cezanne's words, decides to come to Dreyfus' aid. He writes the famous "I Accuse" and is tried for libel. With public approval, Zola is found guilty and sentenced to prison, but he flees the country for England where he ... +


Struggling writer Emile Zola and painter Paul Cezanne share a drafty garret. Zola's mother gets him a job with a publisher enabling him to marry Alexandrine, but the couple are still very poor. When Zola's book The Confessions of Claude is published, its criticisms of city officials attract the attention of the police and cost him his job. Zola continues to write about corruption and the hard lives of the people, but there is not much interest in his books until he meets a prostitute, Nana, and writes her story. The publication of Nana makes Zola a success at last and each new book adds to his fame. Finally, it is announced that Zola is to receive the Legion of Honor. Cezanne visits the Zolas before he leaves for the South and warns Zola not to become fat and complacent in his work. Meanwhile, French army secrets have been passed to the Germans, and Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, has been accused of the crime. Although he protests his innocence and evidence points to Count Walsin-Esterházy, Dreyfus is convicted and sentenced to Devil's Island. Dreyfus' wife Lucie vows to clear her husband's name. She visits Zola to beg him to help her, but he sends her away, saying that his fighting days are over. However, he starts to read the evidence that Lucie has left behind and, remembering Cezanne's words, decides to come to Dreyfus' aid. He writes the famous "I Accuse" and is tried for libel. With public approval, Zola is found guilty and sentenced to prison, but he flees the country for England where he continues to speak out. Finally, the Dreyfus case is reopened and Zola comes home. As he sits up late one night writing, he inhales carbon monoxide gas from a faulty stove and dies before he has the pleasure of seeing Dreyfus reinstated with his full rank. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.