The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

I was half expecting this to be a melo-dramatic piece with a simplistic plot and poor acting, despit it winning the Oscar for best picture in 1937. Gratefully, I was very surprised, even inspired by the movie.

Émile Zola had only been dead 35 years when the film was made. He was a muckraking writer in France during the last half of the 19th century. The film spends nearly the first half of it's time showing Émile's rise to fame from living in poverty with another poor artist, Paul Cézanne. He ultimately becomes very comfortable with his fame and wealth, but is disturbed both by Cézanne and by the wife of Capt. Dreyfus of the Dreyfus Affair. Dreyfus had been falsely accused, convicted and exiled to South America. Zola then picks up his pen and decides to get back into the business of truth at the risk of losing his reputation (which he does for a time).

The film is magnificently written. I wasn't too familiar with either Zola or Dreyfus and so the film had me guessing throughout. There are two excellent speeches delivered by Paul Muni (playing Zola) that must have been lifted from transcripts. The sequence of events and editing also speaks highly to the art of cinema at the time.

Muni is superb and doesn't overdo it as the excitable yet pensive Zola. Apparently he would undergo 2 1/2 hours of make-up for the part each morning and grew his own beard (which looks very real as a result). The film is in fact so engrossing that I can't recall anything in the film that looked fake.


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