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William Dieterle
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Erin O'Brien-Moore, John Litel
Writing Credits:
Matthew Josephson (book, "Zola and His Time"), Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg

The biopic of the famous French muckracking writer and his involvement in fighting the injustice of the Dreyfuss Affair.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 116 min.
Price: $19.97
Release Date: 2/1/2005

• ďThe Littlest DiplomatĒ Short
• ďRomance RoadĒ Short
• ďAinít We Got FunĒ Short
• Lux Radio Broadcast
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Life Of Emile Zola: Special Edition (1937)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 10, 2005)

Coming into 2005, we still hadnít seen five flicks that won Best Picture Oscars on DVD. With the release of 1929ís The Broadway Melody and 1937ís The Life of Emile Zola, we can scratch off two more titles from the list. This leaves 1933ís Cavalcade, 1931ís Cimarron and 1927ís Wings as the only missing movies.

For todayís look at a Best Picture winner, we move to Zola, the story of the noted French writer. The movie launches in 1862, where we meet Emile Zola (Paul Muni) as a struggling writer who lives hand to mouth with his friend, painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). Zolaís mother (Florence Roberts) and his girlfriend Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) get him a job as a book clerk, but he still canít make ends meet. Zola gets in trouble for his book The Confessions of Claude as authorities think heís subversive.

Zola wants to expose the truth about society, and this gets him fired. Matters improve after he meets a hooker named Nana (Erin OíBrien Moore) and finds out her story. He publishes a book about her called Nana and it becomes a hit. The movie then follows Zolaís success as he becomes a powerful force in society.

Eventually we get to 1894 when the French military discovers a traitor in their midst. Although we know that Count Esterhazy (Robert Barrat) did it, the authorities suspect Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut). Eventually they railroad him into a conviction for treason based on flimsy evidence and they deport him to Devilís Island in South America. Years pass and Colonel Picquart (Henry OíNeill) finds evidence of Dreyfusís innocence and Esterhazyís guilt. However, the powers that be quash this knowledge because they donít want anyone to know they made a mistake. Madame Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard) appeals but a kangaroo court declares Esterhazyís innocence

Madame Dreyfus goes to see Zola but he doesnít want to meet with her and he decides against taking the case. Heís gotten old and complacent. However, Madame Dreyfus eventually appeals to Zolaís sense of justice, and the rest of the film follows his attempts to establish Dreyfusís innocence along with the ways this affects his own life.

When Iíve looked at other discussions of Zola, Iíve seen an awful lot of praise for Muniís lead performance. He won the Best Actor Oscar and continues to receive plaudits for his work. Frankly, I donít think he merits this level of praise. While I donít expect realism from acting in movies from this era, Muni offers such a radically theatrical performance that it becomes a distraction. With his eyes bugged out of his head and his constant gesticulating, itís like watching a hummingbird who drank a case of Jolt Cola.

Muni uses every portion of his body to try to sell the lines, and it gets very old. The first scene in which he chatted with Cezanne sets the tone, as Muni chomps the scenery with gusto. I think itís unnatural and distracting. Rather than make the character come to life, Muniís work makes it tough to get involved in the story.

Contrast that with the other actors, most of whom present much subtler performances. The best comes from Schildkraut as Dreyfus. He brings a quiet nobility to his role that makes his treatment all the more heartbreaking. When we compare Muni with the others, it often feels like theyíre in different movies, and I prefer the work presented by the quieter, more naturalistic actors.

Despite my dislike of Muniís lead performance, I think Zola works as a film. I must say that it conveys the passage of time poorly, though. It acts as a weird overview of Zolaís career. The movie leaps about from one era to another without much clarity. While it doesnít need to spoon-feed us, the confusing chronology makes it difficult to follow the story at times.

At least Zola manages to tell a compelling story, and it usually does so well. The emphasis on the Dreyfus affair makes sense, as it presents a very interesting tale of injustice. Frankly, I think a movie that focused on Dreyfus and left Zola as a secondary character might be even better. Itís intriguing to watch Zolaís early career and his rise to prominence, but to a degree, it feels like little more than exposition as the movie builds to the Dreyfus elements.

Given the current climate, Zola proves surprisingly timely. It shows the problems with unquestioning deference to authority and the abuses of power. Without making this review too political, I think a lot of folks in Washington agree with the French military and believe that authority can do no wrong. That makes the movieís message all the more important.

I wouldnít call The Life of Emile Zola one of the best Oscar winners, but it proves generally engaging. I donít think its lead actor does a very good job, as he plays the role in a wildly theatrical way. The other performers pick up the slack, though, and the inherent strengths of the story help make this a consistently involving tale.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

The Life of Emile Zola appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the transfer of Zola didnít remotely compete with the visuals of era-mates like Gone With the Wind, the picture held its own for a flick from 1937.

For the most part, sharpness looked good. A little softness interfered at times, but not with any real consistency. The majority of the flick appeared reasonably well-defined and crisp. I noticed only minor examples of jagged edges and shimmering, as those issues remained very modest, and only a smidgen of edge enhancement occurred.

As one might expect for a movie that will soon hit its 70th birthday, most of the issues seen in Zola related to source flaws. At times the movie looked quite clean, but more than a few exceptions happened. Substantial parts of the movie displayed instances of specks, grit, marks, streaks, blotches, tears, and general debris. Again, these werenít consistently heavy, and significant portions of the flick escaped without many problems. However, the defects could become a notable distraction at times.

Black levels and contrast also seemed erratic. Much of the movie showed nice definition to those elements, but some instances of dark elements looked inky and murky. More than a few scenes also demonstrated whites that were somewhat blown out, and that gave some sequences an inappropriately gray look. Overall, I thought most of Zola presented a satisfying image, but I saw a few too many problems for it to rate above a ďC+Ē.

While not exceptional, the monaural soundtrack of Zola presented relatively positive audio. At times lines sounded a bit reedy and rough, but they never became edgy or suffered from any intelligibility issues. Music came across as somewhat too bright and could occasionally sound slightly harsh. Nonetheless, the score was usually pretty well-rendered, and the music periodically boasted decent dynamic range.

Effects didnít play huge role in the proceedings. Those elements demonstrated acceptable definition and clarity. They failed to stand out but they also never became a weakness. As for source flaws, a light layer of hiss was the only minor distraction; the mix lacked pops, clicks, or other examples of noise. Given the movieís age, Zola presented a perfectly acceptable soundtrack.

As we head to the DVDís extras, the highlight comes from a May 8, 1939 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. This program lasts 58 minutes and 27 seconds as it presents an audio recreation of Zola. Muni reprises his lead role, and we also hear from ďguest producerĒ Leslie Howard as the narrator. As one would expect, the program trims a lot from the movieís story, but it still manages to cover things pretty well. Actually, I think it offers a superior depiction of Zolaís descent into complacency. The radio show offers a very nice extra.

In addition to the filmís theatrical trailer, the DVD presents three vintage shorts. The 19-minute and five-second The Littlest Diplomat shows the impact a little girl has on negotiations between the British and the Indians. Itís a fairly dreadful film in the Shirley Temple vein, but itís an interesting piece of history, as itís an early example of three-strip Technicolor. It also looks great, as it displays astonishingly good picture quality.

A similar short appears via the 18-minute and 44-second Romance Road. It offers another early Technicolor live-action piece, and it also presents very good visual quality. Unfortunately, this tale about a Canadian Mountie who brings peace to a battle over a railroad stinks just as bad as ďDiplomatĒ. Granted, I find it hard to hate a flick with lines as bad as ďWhere do you want it, Frenchie - between the eyes or in the brisket?Ē It falls into the ďunintentionally funnyĒ category due to such dialogue and other goofy elements.

Finally, we get Ainít We Got Fun, an eight-minute and 20-second animated short. It looks the worst of the bunch; the visuals arenít bad for the era, but the cartoon could use a cleaning. Nonetheless, this tale of mice who play while a cat sleeps is easily the most entertaining of this DVDís shorts.

1937ís The Life of Emile Zola remains one of the lesser-known Oscar winners, but it doesnít deserve obscurity. The movie presents an erratic take on its subject, and I believe its lead performance from Paul Muni is radically overrated. Nonetheless, the other performers do very well and the film tells a very interesting tale. The DVD offers flawed picture and sound, but they seem fine for their age. In addition, we find an interesting archive of period shorts and materials that help round out the flick. I liked Zola and recommend it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4 Stars Number of Votes: 7
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