Along with George Arliss, Paul Muni was Hollywood's designated portrayer of Great Men. He appeared as Louis Pasteur (an Oscar-winning role), as Benito Juarez, as French explorer Pierre Radisson, as Chopin's teacher Joseph Elsner, and as Napoleon and Schubert (among others) in SEVEN FACES.
So it's no surprise to find him playing Emile Zola--and wonderfully--in this fine film. Literate and powerful, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA was a huge box-office success, although its subject matter--the French novelist's part in the Dreyfus Affair--hardly seemed promising in that regard. The film
introduces an anguished Zola censured by the French government and public for his frank treatment of squalid life and social problems in his novel Nana (based on his own experiences with a prostitute, played by O'Brien-Moore). As time passes, though, he is increasingly heralded as France's
greatest writer and as the champion of those who cannot speak for themselves during France's Second Empire. Zola's greatest challenge comes when he fights for the freedom of the framed Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus (Schildkraut). Pen in hand, Zola writes, "J'accuse..."
The film's script was originally shown to Ernst Lubitsch at Paramount, who liked it but felt he had no actor in his stable who could do justice to the main character. He generously passed it on to producer Henry Blanke of Warners, which had the services of Muni, Lubitsch's choice for the part. As
on so many other occasions, Lubitsch was right; Muni triumphs completely in this demanding role. As was his custom, Muni steeped himself in his character, reading all of Zola's works, extensively researching the Dreyfus case, and attempting many different makeup variations before settling on his
final choice. The other actors are equally fine, with Holden in particular a warm glow as Zola's wife. It's nice to see Sondergaard in a rare sympathetic part and, as her husband, the center of the controversy, Schildkraut rivals Muni in effectiveness. Scene after scene of the nervous and later
numbed Dreyfus being stripped of his honor haunt this film and Schildkraut was the only possible choice for the year's Supporting Actor Oscar. The movie itself, though it deviates from the facts a bit, is basically faithful to history and well scripted, without extraneous characters or plot lines.
The period details are all authentic, with no expense spared to recreate the settings. Director Dieterle, one of Hollywood's best, handles the script beautifully, especially in the brilliant courtroom scenes, and the anti-Semitic nature of Dreyfus's persecution is also conveyed potently, though
circumspectly. (We never hear the word Jew.) Skip the 1958 remake, I ACCUSE.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Along with George Arliss, Paul Muni was Hollywood's designated portrayer of Great Men. He appeared as Louis Pasteur (an Oscar-winning role), as Benito Juarez, as French explorer Pierre Radisson, as Chopin's teacher Joseph Elsner, and as Napoleon and Schube… (more)