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William Dieterle
Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Gloria Holden
Writing Credits:
Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg

French muckracking writer Emile Zola fights the injustice of the Dreyfuss Affair.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English DTS-HD MA Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 116 min.
Price: $21.99
Release Date: 8/29/2023

• Lux Radio Theater Broadcast
• 2 Shorts
• Trailer


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The Life of Emile Zola [Blu-Ray] (1937)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 7, 2023)

With 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola, we get that year’s winner of the Best Picture Oscar. As implied, it brings the story of the noted French author.

In 1862, we meet Emile Zola (Paul Muni) as a struggling writer who lives hand to mouth with his friend, painter Paul Cezanne (Vladimir Sokoloff). Zola’s mother (Florence Roberts) and his girlfriend Alexandrine (Gloria Holden) get him a job as a book clerk, but he still can’t make ends meet.

Zola gets in trouble for his book The Confessions of Claude as authorities think he’s subversive. Zola wants to expose the truth about society, and this gets him fired.

Matters improve after he meets a hooker named Nana (Erin O’Brien Moore) and finds out her story. He publishes a book about her called Nana and it becomes a hit. The movie then follows Zola’s success as he becomes a powerful force in society.

When I looked at other discussions of Zola, I saw an awful lot of praise for Muni’s lead performance. He won the Best Actor Oscar and continues to receive plaudits for his work.

Frankly, I don’t think Muni merits this level of praise. While I don’t 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, it’s 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 chats with Cezanne sets the tone, as Muni chomps the scenery with gusto. I think it’s unnatural and distracting. Rather than make the character come to life, Muni’s work makes it tough to get involved in the story.

This becomes a contrast with the other actors, most of whom present much subtler performances. The best comes from Schildkraut as Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a military officer accused of treason.

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 they’re in different movies, and I prefer the work presented by the quieter, more naturalistic actors.

Despite my dislike of Muni’s 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 Zola’s career, one that leaps about from one era to another without much clarity. While it doesn’t 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. It’s intriguing to watch Zola’s 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.

I wouldn’t call The Life of Emile Zola one of the best Oscar winners, but it proves generally engaging. I don’t 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 Disc Grades: Picture B/ Audio B-/ Bonus B-

The Life of Emile Zola appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though not dazzling, the image largely held up well.

For the most part, sharpness looked good. Some softness appeared along the way, and this seemed more obvious in early scenes, perhaps to hide the fact that 42-year-old Muni played 22-year-old Zola.

Nonetheless, most of the movie offered appealing enough accuracy. I saw no signs of jagged edges, moiré effects or edge haloes. Grain seemed light but appropriate, and the film lacked print issues.

Blacks felt dark and tight, while low-light shots demonstrated reasonable clarity. Nothing here seemed terrific, but we nonetheless got a pretty good presentation for an effort of this movie’s age.

While not exceptional, the DTS-HD MA monaural soundtrack of Zola also presented relatively positive audio. At times lines sounded a bit reedy and rough, but they never 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 didn’t play huge role in the proceedings. Those elements demonstrated acceptable definition and clarity.

No issues with noise interfered. Given the movie’s age, Zola presented a perfectly acceptable soundtrack.

How did the Blu-ray compare to the DVD from 2006? Audio felt a bit cleaner.

Visuals offered obvious improvements, mainly due to the elimination of all the print flaws seen on the DVD. This turned into a clear – and major – visual upgrade.

As we head to extras, the highlight comes from a May 8, 1939 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast. This program lasts 59 minutes, 44 seconds as it presents an audio recreation of Zola. Muni reprises his lead role, and we also hear from “guest producer” Leslie Howard as the narrator.

As one would expect, the program trims a lot from the movie’s story, but it still manages to cover things pretty well. Actually, I think it offers a superior depiction of Zola’s descent into complacency. The radio show offers a very nice extra.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, we get two circa 1937 theatrical shorts. These include Taking the Count (21:42) and Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (9:23).

With Count, champion boxer Joe Palooka (Robert Norton) tries to impress his wealthy girlfriend Ann’s (Beverly Phalon) snooty parents. Norton shows zero comedic talent and this turns into a stale stab at laughs.

The second short takes place at the “Mal Hallett School of Swing” and uses a thin framework as an excuse for musical performances. It acts as a primitive form of music video and comes with some charm from that perspective.

One of the lesser-known Oscar winners, The Life of Emile Zola does not deserve obscurity. The movie presents an erratic take on its subject, but the film tells a very interesting tale. The Blu-ray offers generally good picture and sound and a small assortment of bonus features. I like Zola and recommend this Blu-ray, as it easily upgrades the old DVD.

To rate this film, visit the prior review of THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA

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