23 August 2006 | Bunuel1976
THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (William Dieterle, 1937) ***1/2
Of Paul Muni's three biographical films made at Warner Bros. and directed by William Dieterle (the others were THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR  and JUAREZ ), 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  and I ACCUSE , 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 !).
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).