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The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Not Rated  |   |  Biography, Drama  |  2 October 1937 (USA)
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Reviews: 40 user | 29 critic

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)
Henry O'Neill ...
Morris Carnovsky ...
Commander of Paris
Robert Barrat ...
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 »

Parents Guide:





Release Date:

2 October 1937 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Emile Zolas liv  »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Show detailed on  »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Early in the film, Zola burns a few books to warm his drafty apartment. When Cezanne opens the window to let out the smoke, Zola asks him to close the windows to avoid a draft. The real Émile Zola in fact died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a stopped chimney. See more »


The lettering on the door to Clemenceau's office at the newspaper misspells his first name "George" instead of the correct French spelling, "Georges". See more »


La Rue: We've been watching your writings, young man. You're a troublemaker! These articles of yours, attacking our leading men of letters, the arts! Criticizing the civic authorities!
Émile Zola: Perhaps you know of something better for me to criticize?
See more »


Referenced in Hollywood Hist-o-Rama: Paul Muni (1962) See more »


La Marseillaise
(1792) (uncredited)
Written by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle
Variations often in the score
See more »

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User Reviews

May my name be forgotten, if Dreyfus is not innocent.. He is innocent.
26 February 2007 | by (Chinatown, California) – See all my reviews

In 1937, The Life of Emile Zola was nominated for the largest number of awards, ten. The movie won three including Best Picture. However, sadly and in some ways shamefully, this film has been ridiculed for being dated today, it's ways and means a little obsolete, and it's style rather unusual. That is downright unjust! The style which is portrayed in this remarkable seventy year old film is quite conventional. The dialogue is perhaps overwritten, but the powerful story is there, and the story line is enhanced by intelligent dialogue to say the least, as well as, first rate performances by an excellent cast, preferably Paul Muni (giving possibly his best performance) as Emile Zola and supported well by Joseph Schildkraut as Dreyfus. Not to mention, the film is technically excellent. Editing, costuming, lighting - without doubt, and all the production values stand up beautifully even several decades later.

Sure it's a fictionalized version of the life of the great French writer Emile Zola, however, great fiction can make a great film and that is the case with The Life of Emile Zola. One may forget that this film was released in 1937 when anti-Semitism was again sweeping the continent of Europe, and for that very reason, the word "Jew" is never mentioned and we are only given a short visual reference. To avoid lawsuits from their descendants, only Major Dort and Major Esterhazy names were specifically identified. Others are referred to as the Chief of Staff, the Minister of War, etc. Also, Dreyfus 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. These historical errors can be forgiven, because it's the films message which stands and given the current climate, the movie's message is all the more important.

The shifting focus of this film doesn't make it a frustrating experience for modern viewers. In fact, the film flows quite nicely: struggling writer, gets in trouble for his book, then the film follows Zola's success as he becomes a powerful force in society. Eventually we get to 1894, where many claim the film to zoom away from its subject, where the film begins to focus on Dreyfus. With that being said, if you sit down to watch The Life of Emile Zola, don't skip the first third of the movie, because it's every bit as moving and powerful as the dramatic court scene, most notably in the unforgettable self-defense scene in which Muni delivers an outstanding performance.

Unfortunately, had Muni not won the previous year for another biopic, The Story of Louis Pasteur, he would have received the Oscar for his portrayal of Zola. Muni was not only nominated for an Oscar for this role but also received awards from many critics groups. Today many dismiss the significant talent of Muni (one of films first devoted actors), however, one cannot deny he had a great deal with elevating the art of film acting.

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