WB Top 100: The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.

This week, we have something of a double-feature since Diane and I were a week behind. First up: 1937’s “The Life of Emile Zola”.

Src: A March Through Film History

Emile Zola was a famous French writer in the late 1800’s. I had no prior knowledge of him before seeing this movie, but he is the origin of a line you may have heard before in political discourse, “J’accuse!” This phrase was the headline Zola used in a newspaper article about the falsely accused army officer, Alfred Dreyfus.

“The Life of Emile Zola” was not the worst movie I’ve seen on this list, but it was one of the more boring. I had no expectations going in and the first quarter or so of the film seemed to be setting up a biopic for an interesting historical figure. It soon fell flat though as the movie quickly glossed over much of Zola’s life to skip past his early social justice days to his fat and lazy socialite days. After his best friend Paul (the best character in the entire movie) leaves him, the movie jumps over to the at first completely unrelated, Alfred Dreyfus.

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Dreyfus. The actor won an award for his supporting role. I didn’t much notice.

Dreyfus is a Jewish army captain who gets falsely accused of treason. The entire military complex of France at the time is out to get him, and news of his crimes quickly become the talk of Paris. Zola first hears of this news while out shopping for lobsters and we get an “excellent” scene about how he finds the freshest ones.

There were bits and pieces of this film that were good, but it seemed like it wanted to both be a biopic and a court procedural without doing either any justice (pardon the pun). I might’ve been more interested in the Dreyfus bits, especially with the obvious corruption the court proceedings showed, but since the first quarter of the movie had been spent on developing Zola’s character, I didn’t care about Dreyfus or his plot. Similarly, with so much of the movie about Dreyfus, Zola became a reoccurring reaction shot in the courtroom and little more.

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The movie needed more Paul. I liked Paul.

At the time, this movie was heralded as a great biopic. I feel like prior movies have done it better. The first frame of the movie even states that it has changed names, locations, and events thus making it “fictitious” (the movie’s word)! All the same, I can’t wait to get out of this era. Every other movie is a rapid series of cliff notes about some great man I have never heard of and know nothing about.

There are probably better ways to learn about the life of Emile Zola or Alfred Dreyfus. I learned more from Wikipedia, for instance. Try that instead.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.


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