For Reel

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
March 1, 2012, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: William Dieterle

After the unexpected critical and commercial success of The Story of Louis Pasteur, Warner Brothers optioned another biopic set in 19th century France for star Paul Muni and director William Dieterle, this time affording the team a much greater budget. The result, The Life of Emile Zola, earned an unprecedented ten Academy Award nominations and would go on to win the top prize for Best Picture. Zola, who rose to fame by writing gritty, realistic novels about social injustice, fought antisemitism in the French government and helped acquit a wrongly-convicted Jewish captain in the French military, Alfred Dreyfus. Muni is unrecognizable in heavy make-up and, late in the film, delivers an impassioned six minute speech in a courtroom. Showy as he is, however, it is Joseph Schildkraut and Gale Sondergaard that steal the picture, gradually becoming more broken and more determined, respectively. Like Pasteur, the film isn’t terrible, rather especially bland, with its modest successes only coming from the performers. Dieterle – who, despite a poor reputation, directed a couple of great films in the thirties (Jewel Robbery, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) – shows little sense of pacing and structure, and as such the proceedings feel indeterminate and without momentum.

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