The Life of Émile Zola (1937)



Director:  William Dieterle.

Starring:  Paul Muni (Zola),  Gale Sondergaard (Lucie Dreyfus),  Joseph Schildkraut (Captain Dreyfus),  Gloria Holden (Alexandrine Zola),  Donald Crisp (Maitre Labori),  Erin O'Brien-Moore (Nana),  Morris Carnovsky (Maitre Labori),  Louis Calhern (Maj. Dort),  Harry Davenport (Army Chief of Staff),  Ralph Morgan (Commander of Paris), Robert Barrat (Esterhazy).

Won Oscars for Best Picture, Screenplay, and Supporting Actor (Schildkraut).

Great story of the man who came to the defense of Captain Dreyfus in the famous anti-Semitic affair that divided all of France into warring camps. Paul Muni great as Zola.  



Excellent movie.  It begins around 1862 when Zola got a job as a clerk in a publishing firm.  His first book, The Confession of Claude, is attacked as being of great harm to public morals and, as a result, Zola gets fired from his job.  He publishes the book Nana, inspired by the life of a prostitute.  Zola becomes wealthy from the great sales of the book, selling some 36,000 copies in the first three days of its publication. 

He writes The Downfall criticizing the corrupt French army for having provoked Prussian into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and then mismanagement of that war.  He receives more criticism. 

But the biggest matter for which Zola becomes famous is his defense of the French Jewish military man, Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of being a traitor.  The case was one of anti-Semitism, the French officers rushing to judgment without any real evidence against the man. 

At first, Dreyfus is not interested in the case, which he feels is an open and shut one.  But Mrs. Dreyfus comes to his house to plea with him for help in getting her innocent husband out of prison.  Zola starts to read about the case and sees the injustice done to Dreyfus.  He then publicly accuses the Army general staff of convicting the wrong man and then covering up their mistake once they learned it was another officer who was guilty of the treason.  This brings Zola to trial for libel against the army general staff. 

Zola makes an impassioned plea for his case near the end of the trial which is very moving.  But will he win his case and get Dreyfus out of prison?

The movie is a very good one in portraying the life of a man who devoted his life to presenting the truth in his writings, even though he was often accused of immorality and of weakening the country of France.  As Zola says in the movie: "Life is hard, raw and ugly" and he wanted to portray this real life. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


French novelist, critic, and political activist;  the most prominent French novelist of the late 19th century; noted for his theories of naturalism and for his intervention in the Dreyfus Affair.

1830-1848  --  Louis-Philippe, the Citizen King.  

1840  --  born Paris, France, but lives in Aix-en-Provence in southern France (a schoolmate of the painter Paul Cézanne), where his father, a civil engineer of Italian descent, was involved in the construction of a municipal water system.

1847  -- his father dies leaving the family poor; goes to school at the Lycée Saint-Louis in Paris, but fails twice to pass the baccalauréat exam.

1848-1852  --  President of France, Napoleon III. 

1852-1870  --  Bonaparte Dynasty, Restored Second Empire, Emperor Napoleon III. 

1859  --  has to go to work, but mostly he is unemployed and poor.

1862  --  clerk for publishing firm L.-C.-F. Hachette; promoted to advertising department.

1865  --  first novel, La Confession de Claude (Claude's Confession), a sordid, semiautobiographical book. Leaves his regular job to write.

1867  --  Thérèse Raquin, a grisly tale of murder and its aftermath.

1868  --  Madeleine Férat, applying principles of heredity.

Begins the 20 volume Rougon-Macquart series, each featuring a different member of the same family.

1870  -- first novel of the series, La Fortune des Rougon (The Rougon Family Fortune) appears in serial form.

1870  -- Franco-Prussian War.

1870 --  marries Gabrielle-Alexandrine Meley.

defended the Impressionists.

1878   --  the Zola home in Médan, on the Seine River not far from Paris, is a gathering spot for a group of the novelist's disciples, Guy de Maupassant and Joris-Karl Huysmans.

1880  -- publication of his novel Nana, which proved a great scandal, but a great success.

1880  -- he and his disciples published a collection of short stories, Les Soirées de Médan (Evenings at Médan).

1886 --  his novel L'Oeuvre (The Masterpiece) offends Cézanne, who thinks the novel is a negative comment on his own life.  

1880  -- Le Roman expérimental (The Experimental Novel) explains naturalism.

1881  --  Les Romanciers naturalistes ( The Naturalist Novelists).

1887  --  five of his "disciples" repudiate Zola for his La Terre, a sordid portrait of peasant life.

1888  -- start of 14 year affair with one of his wife's housemaids who has 2 children with him.

1892 --  novel La Débâcle criticizes the French army and the government actions during the Franco-Prussian War.

1893 -- completes the Rougon-Macquart series.

1894 --  Dreyfus, a Jewish French army officer, is wrongly convicted for treason; beginning of a 12-year controversy.  (See review for movie Prisoner of Honor.)

George Clemenceau (1841-1929) was a passionate defender of Dreyfus.  He was later twice premier of France (1906--1909 and 1917-1920). 

1896-1898  --  Jules Mline, prime minister of France.

1898 --  Zola intervenes in the Dreyfus Affair.  Zola publishes a fierce denunciation of the French general staff in an open letter beginning with the words "J'accuse" ("I accuse").

Zola is prosecuted for libel and found guilty.

1899  --  he flees to England.

1900  --  returns to France when hears Dreyfus verdict to be reversed.

1902  -- dies of coal gas asphyxiation resulting from a blocked chimney flue.  People line the streets to see his passing casket.

1908 -- body is transferred to the Panthéon and placed alongside those of Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Victor Hugo, etc.


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