Still as potently relevant today as it was in 1937, The Life of Emile Zola
is a marvelously entertaining slab of Hollywood social issue-mongering. The life of the French writer is broadly sketched in the early going, but the film settles into its groove with the Dreyfus affair: the scandalous railroading of a military captain for treason, which shook France to its foundation in the 1890s. The elderly Zola's gradual involvement in the case, climaxing with his electrifying "J'accuse!" essay and subsequent trial for libel, is the heart and soul of the picture.
Warner Bros.' version of this story, directed by William Dieterle, carries over the passion (and hokum) of the previous year's Story of Louis Pasteur. It also retains that film's leading man, Paul Muni, who turns in an elaborately theatrical performance. The result was a box-office smash and three Oscars, for best picture, script, and supporting actor (Joseph Schildkraut, who plays Dreyfus). While the film occasionally creaks with Hollywood artifice, the clarion call of truth and outrage come through surprisingly strongly--indeed the film looks prescient as a warning about governments closing ranks to cover up mistakes. Mostly sidestepped is the anti-Semitic vitriol of the campaign against Dreyfus (his Jewishness is referenced only in a written report glimpsed for a moment). This is an old-fashioned barnburner that encourages the viewer to fan the flames. --Robert Horton