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Plot, Details & Awards

The Life of Emile Zola

Not Rated In Theaters 03/29/2002 , 117min.
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Plot & Details

The second of Paul Muni's biographical films for Warner Bros., the Oscar-winning The Life of Emile Zola is by far the best, even allowing for the dramatic license taken with the material. When first we meet French novelist and essayist Zola, he is starving in a Parisian garret with his painter friend, Paul Cezanne. Each time Zola attempts to write "the truth," he is stymied by governmental censors. Still, he is able to achieve both fame and fortune with the publication of "Nana," an unardorned and best-selling tale of a prostitute (whom we can safely assume was not quite as likeable or attractive as Erin O'Brien-Moore, who plays the novel's "role model"). The lion's share of the film is devoted to Zola's attempts to clear the reputation of Army captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), who has been framed on a charge of treason by his superiors and condemned to Devil's Island. Publishing his famous manifesto "J'accuse," Zola leaves himself wide open for public condemnation and criminal prosecution. Though he delivers a brilliant self-defense in court, Zola is found guilty. Forced to flee to England, he continues railing against the unjust, corrupt military establishment, eventually forcing a retrial and exoneration of Dreyfus. Alas, Zola is killed in a freak accident at home before he can meet the liberated Dreyfus. At his funeral, Emile Zola is eulogized by Anatole France (Morris Carnovsky), who refers to the fallen crusader as "a moment of the conscience of man." For various reasons -- some dramatic, some legal -- the actual facts of "L'affaire Dreyfus" are altered by the Norman Reilly Raine/Heinz Herald/Geza Herczeg screenplay. The fact that Dreyfus was railroaded because he was Jewish is obscured; in fact, except for a very brief visual reference, the word "Jew" is never mentioned. Only those villains whose names were a matter of public record (Major Dort, Major Esterhazy) are specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. to avoid lawsuits from their descendants (remember that the events depicted in the film, most of which take place between 1894 and 1902, were still within living memory in 1937). As for Dreyfus himself, he was not freed and restored to rank in 1902, the year of Zola's death, but in 1906-after being found guilty again in an 1899 retrial (Dreyfus died in 1935, outliving everyone else involved in the case). These historical gaffes can be forgiven in the light of the film's overall message: that a single small, clear voice can fight City Hall. If for nothing else, The Life of Emile Zola deserves classic status due to Paul Muni's towering performance, most notably in the unforgettable summation scene: "By all that I have done for France, by my works -- by all that I have written, I swear to you that Dreyfus is innocent. May all that melt away -- may my name be forgotten, if Dreyfus is not innocent. He is innocent."

Awards

Academy Awards

Year Award CategoryCast & Crew Result
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Assistant Director Russ Saunders Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Art Direction Anton Grot Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Screenplay Norman Reilly Raine Won
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Screenplay Geza Herczeg Won
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Original Story Heinz Herald Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Sound Nathan Levinson Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Picture Won
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Screenplay Heinz Herald Won
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Actor Paul Muni Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Supporting Actor Joseph Schildkraut Won
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Director William Dieterle Nominated
1937 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Best Original Story Geza Herczeg Nominated

Film Daily

Year Award CategoryCast & Crew Result
1937 Film Daily 10 Best Films Won

National Board of Review

Year Award CategoryCast & Crew Result
1937 National Board of Review Best Picture Nominated
1937 National Board of Review Best Acting Joseph Schildkraut Won

New York Film Critics Circle

Year Award CategoryCast & Crew Result
1937 New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor Paul Muni Won
1937 New York Film Critics Circle Best Picture Won

New York Times

Year Award CategoryCast & Crew Result
1937 New York Times 10 Best Films Won

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