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The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Not Rated | | Biography, Drama | 2 October 1937 (USA)
The biopic of the famous French muckraking writer and his involvement in fighting the injustice of the Dreyfuss Affair.



(screen play), (screen play) | 4 more credits »

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Won 3 Oscars. Another 4 wins & 7 nominations. See more awards »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Erin O'Brien-Moore ...
Nana (as Erin O'Brien Moore)
Morris Carnovsky ...
Commander of Paris
Vladimir Sokoloff ...


Fictionalized account of the life of famed French author Emile Zola. As portrayed in the film, he was a penniless writer sharing an apartment in Paris with painter Paul Cezanne when he finally wrote a best-seller, Nana. He has always had difficulty holding onto a job as he is quite outspoken, being warned on several occasions by the public prosecutor that he risks charges if he does not temper his writings. The bulk of the film deals with his involvement in the case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus who was falsely convicted of giving secret military information to the Germans and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devils Island. Antisemitism played an important role in the real-life case but is hardly mentioned in the film. Even after the military found definitive evidence that Dreyfus was innocent, the army decided to cover it up rather than face the scandal of having arbitrarily convicted the wrong man. Zola's famous letter, J'Accuse (I Accuse), led to his own trial for libel where he was ... Written by garykmcd

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


He'll Hold You In Silence As Deep As Your Emotions ! See more »


Biography | Drama


Not Rated | See all certifications »

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Release Date:

2 October 1937 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Emile Zolas liv  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


The second biographical film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture after The Great Ziegfeld (1936). See more »


Nana is shown as the first novel Zola writes, and the first to have a popular success. In fact, Zola had written more than a dozen novels before Nana, many of which were successful. See more »


Émile Zola: [reading from his letter "I Accuse"] I shall tell the truth. Because if I did not, my nights would be haunted by the spectre of an innocent man expiating under the most frightful torture a crime he never committed.
See more »


Featured in History Brought to Life (1950) See more »


La Marseillaise
(1792) (uncredited)
Written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Variations often in the score
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User Reviews

THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (William Dieterle, 1937) ***1/2
23 August 2006 | by (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

Of Paul Muni's three biographical films made at Warner Bros. and directed by William Dieterle (the others were THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR [1936] and JUAREZ [1939]), this was the only one which had never been shown on TV in my neck of the woods; ironically, it was the first to make it to DVD - but, then again, it is the most highly-regarded of them! Still, given the film's reputation (Best Picture Oscar Winner, Leonard Maltin rates it **** in his "Movies & Video Guide"), I somehow expected a masterpiece - but, personally, I feel that Dieterle's THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) are greater achievements. Even so, it's been sometime since I watched a vintage old-style Hollywood film; of late, I've mostly been concentrating on Euro-Cult and World Cinema stuff - but, really, there's no beating the professionalism and sheer entertainment value of a product from the cinema's Golden Age!

The film strikes a good balance between Zola's literary career and his struggles for social justice: the latter is mostly devoted to the Dreyfus affair, a veritable cause celebre at the time (cinematically treated two more times in DREYFUS [1931] and I ACCUSE [1958], neither of which I've watched though the latter had turned up some years back on late-night Italian TV!), culminating in one of the finest courtroom scenes ever filmed. Production values are top-notch, the Oscar-winning script appropriately literate (though the constant speechifying and the film's two-hour length - by contrast, LOUIS PASTEUR had been less than 90 minutes but, then, the epic and star-studded JUAREZ was longer still

  • make for a somewhat heavy-going experience) and Dieterle's handling

virtually impeccable; the only unpersuasive aspect, perhaps, is the one-dimensional portrayal of the corrupt French military who callously sent Dreyfus to Devil's Island for treason, and left him there to rot for years - even after they had found absolute proof of his innocence, because that would have meant admitting to a mistake!

The cast is filled with wonderful characters actors whose familiarity - and reliability - allows utmost audience involvement every step of the way, despite Hollywood's typically idealized viewing of events. Best of all, naturally, are Muni as Zola (simply brilliant, especially during his show-stopping speech at the trial, and who even ages convincingly!) and Schildkraut (a touching Dreyfus who, in spite of his relatively brief appearance, managed to walk off with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar - though, personally, I would have voted for H.B. Warner in LOST HORIZON [1937]!).

Unfortunately, the audio level on Warner's otherwise exemplary DVD is rather low; the supplements include three vintage shorts (described in more detail below), as well as the full 1-hour broadcast of a radio adaptation of the script (obviously compressed but also including some minor additions) - presented by Leslie Howard (who, at the end, even interviews William Dieterle!) and featuring Muni himself, accompanied by Josephine Hutchinson (stepping in for Gloria Holden, who had played Zola's wife in the film).

9 of 10 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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