The Life of Emile Zola is a 1937 American biographical film about French author Émile Zola, played by Paul Muni and directed by William Dieterle. It has the distinction of being the second biographical film to win the Oscar for Best Picture (*). It premiered at the Los Angeles Carthay Circle Theatre to great success both critically and financially. Contemporary reviews cited it the best biographical film made up to that time. In 2000, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Set in the mid through late 19th century, it depicts Zola’s friendship with Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, and his rise to fame through his prolific writing, with particular focus on his involvement late in life in the Dreyfus affair (**).
Struggling writer Émile Zola (Paul Muni) shares a drafty Paris attic with his friend, painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). A chance encounter with a street prostitute (Erin O’Brien-Moore) hiding from a police raid inspires his first bestseller, Nana, an exposé of the steamy underside of Parisian life (zie bovenstaande foto).
Certain scenes have been interpreted in the context of the time as a reaction to the increasing repression of Nazi Germany. Critic David Denby in 2013 noted that, while the movie featured progressive rhetoric in Zola’s last speech, overall it was “a perfect example of the half-boldness, half-cowardice, and outright confusion that marked Hollywood’s response to Nazism and antisemitism in the nineteen-thirties.” For instance, the film never mentioned “antisemitism” or “Jew”. In 2013 American scholar Ben Urwand reported that studio head Jack L. Warner, a Jew himself, personally ordered the word ‘Jew’ to be excised from all the dialogue in the film. [Wikipedia]
(*) Ik neem aan dat Wikipedia hiermee refereert aan “The Great Ziegfeld” dat een jaar eerder de Oscar had gewonnen.
(**) Joseph Schildkraut won met zijn vertolking van Dreyfuss de Oscar voor “best supporting actor”. Ook de scenaristen Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg en Norman Reilly Raine wonnen een Oscar.