Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Emile Zola is part biopic, part courtroom drama as it tells the story of the famed French author who became involved in the Dreyfus affair by writing an editorial defense of an innocent man charged with espionage and accusing the French government of a cover-up. The film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Opening in Paris, 1862, Emile is a provocateur with his writing, seeking to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” a turn of phrase Finley Peter Dunn ascribed to the role of newspapers in 1902. A government agent issues Emile an official warning as his criticisms of civic authorities is not apprecated, and cost him his job. He befriends a prostitute, which leads him to create a best-selling, salacious novel. He goes after the military for their failure in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. However, the more success he attains, the more comfortable and less afflicted Emile’s life becomes. He no longer resembles his younger self. That is until he is confronted by a grave matter of injustice and corruption.
A spy is found within the French military and they determine it is Captain Dreyfuss, who has served the military for 20 years and proclaims his innocence. He is court-martialed, although no trial is shown, which speaks to their lack of evidence, and is exiled to Devil’s Island. After Colonel Picquart is assigned the role of chief of intelligence, he discovers evidence that points to Major Esterhazy being the spy. When Picquart brings this news to his superiors, rather than right the wrong, they quash the evidence and find Esterhazy innocent to save face and reassign Picquart out of country.
Four years pass before Dreyfuss’s wife finally contacts Emile. Initially, he is disinterested in getting involved, but once he learns about the case, he is compelled to get involved. A newspaper publishes “J’accuse,” an open letter that accuses the military of covering up the truth about the Dreyfuss affair. The segment of the public blindly devoted to the country and its government are angered.
This is when the film becomes a courtroom drama. Emile is charged with defaming the military higher-ups. However, the ruling judge clearly tips the scales against Emile as his attorney is not allowed to bring up evidence related to the Dreyfus affair because that’s a settled matter even though it’s at the heart of defamation charges. It’s fascinating to watch the trial play out as the Emile’s attorney does his best under the judge’s ridiculous restrictions and makes his repeated objections well known. Even though the post-trial events are likely accurate, they wrap up the story so quickly and easily that they feel anti-climatic and as if a Hollywood ending was tacked on.
Muni gives a great performance, believable as a starving writer and also a well-fed celebrity. And it’s wonderful to see the young man’s heart and humanity shine through the elder’s aged exterior when confronted with an injustice he could not ignore. Donald Crisp as Emile’s attorney stood out with his constant expressions of outrage at the judge’s repeated roadblocks to a fair trial.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The new HD master is from 4K scan of original nitrate camera negative. The blacks are inky. On occasion, whites bloom too bright. Film grain is apparent. Due to the source, focus sharpness varies by scene. The image is clean from dirt or other defect.
The audio is available in DTS HD-MA 2.0. Max Steiner’s score has too loud a volume in the mix. It frequently booms at the start of a scene before becoming subdued. Dialogue is clear. The track is free from hiss and exhibits no signs of age or wear.
Special Features are:
- Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (60 min) – Broadcast on 5/8/39, Muni recreates his role.
- Taking the Count (21 min) – Ann (Beverly Phalon) wants to make a gentleman out of her fiance, boxer Joe Palooka (Robert Norton), in the seventh of nine Vitaphone shorts based on Ham Fisher’s comic strip. Shemp Howard co-stars as Joe’s manager Knobby. Joe takes a backseat to the others in this mildly amusing film.
- Mal Hallet and his Orchestra (9 min) – Three songs are performed with singers.
- Original Theatrical Trailer
The Life of Emile Zola tells a heroic true story of a man repeatedly standing up to the powers that be, even when it put his life at risk. It’s a well-made film from the Classic Hollywood era with William Dieterle’s direction serving as a template for this type of film. Notable for being Warner Bros.’s first Best Picture winner, it has aged well unlike many of the Academy’s choices. The Blu-ray delivers a quality picture with fun extras from the era.