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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: August 29th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1937

The Life of Emile Zola - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

Another Golden Age Best Picture Oscar winner comes to Blu-ray care of Warner Archive and it's worth the wait. The Life of Emile Zola salutes the influential French author and activist and features a bravura performance by Paul Muni in the title role. The lavish film was the first in history to receive 10 Academy Award nominations and the glorious transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative showcases every impeccable technical element. Solid audio and a few vintage supplements also distinguish this classy release of a very classy biopic. Highly Recommended.

Paul Muni gives an unforgettable performance as one of the world's greatest writers, a man who proved that one voice can overcome social inequality and change the course of a nation. The Life of Emile Zola is a magnificent production, skillfully directed by William Dieterle. The film chronicle's Zola's days as a struggling writer in Paris to his first success with the publication of Nana and his brilliant J'accuse, which exposed “the Dreyfuss affair” as a gross injustice to cover up government incompetence, The film earned three Academy Awards®, including Best Picture….the first Warner Bros. film to be granted the film industry's highest honor.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
New 1080p HD master from 4K scan of original nitrate camera negative.
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
116
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1 with side mattes
Audio Formats:
English DTS HD-MA 2.0 Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Original Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
August 29th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Few actors embody historical figures better than Paul Muni, who relished transforming himself into the celebrated men he played. After winning a Best Actor Oscar for portraying the titular scientist in The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1935, Muni made a serious stab at a second statuette two years later when he took on the role of French author and activist Emile Zola. Though Muni would lose the award to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous, his stirring, finely etched performance remains a marvel and fuels director William Dieterle's lavish and absorbing film, which won the Best Picture Oscar and became the first movie in history to earn 10 Academy Award nominations.

The Life of Emile Zola was also a crowning achievement for Warner Bros, which pioneered the biopic in the early sound era with a series of films starring George Arliss, who portrayed such lofty figures as British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, American patriot Alexander Hamilton, and French philosopher Voltaire. When Arliss left the studio, Muni became the face of Warner's prestige pictures and The Life of Emile Zola is prestige with a capital P. The studio spared no expense in mounting this massive production and the investment paid off to the tune of tremendous critical and popular success and Warner Bros' first-ever Best Picture Oscar.

The narrative begins in Paris in 1862 and briefly chronicle's Zola's humble beginnings, close friendship with painter Paul Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff), and marriage to wife Alexandrine (Gloria Holden). Zola's sympathy for the downtrodden and passion for social issues lead to a chance meeting with a forlorn prostitute (Erin O'Brien-Moore) who becomes the inspiration for his breakthrough novel, Nana. Success and complacency follow, but an unwanted visit from Lucie Dreyfus (Gale Sondergaard), wife of Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), a French army captain wrongly convicted of espionage and treason, awakens Zola's long-dormant sense of outrage over criminal and moral injustice.

Zola champions the innocence of Dreyfus, who is rotting away in prison on Devil's Island, by writing J'accuse (I Accuse), a scathing indictment of his case. The document, which attacks the French army and calls out its corruption, causes a furor and incites a libel charge from the government. The rest of the film depicts Zola's explosive trial and tireless efforts on Dreyfus' behalf.

One of my biggest gripes about biopics is how they often try to pass off invented episodes as fact. The nice thing about The Life of Emile Zola is that it owns up to its inaccuracies right up front with a title card explicitly stating liberties were taken for dramatic effect. What that title card doesn't reveal is that all references to the anti-Semitism that prompted Dreyfus' scapegoating were deleted from the movie's Oscar-winning script. Eagle eyes will catch the word "Jew" on Dreyfus' personal army record, which shows up on screen for a few seconds, and astute viewers can connect the dots from there, but Warner Bros' refusal to address the issue head-on and call a spade a spade is disappointing. Some have surmised the studio feared an economic backlash from the lucrative German market, while others claim studio chief Jack Warner, himself a Jew, worried calling attention to anti-Semitism might raise its profile in the U.S., upset America's delicate social balance at the time, and even jeopardize the positions of Warner and his fellow Jewish moguls. (Interestingly, Warner Bros would find its backbone a couple of years later and mount Hollywood's first cinematic assault on Adolf Hitler's ideology and regime, Confessions of a Nazi Spy.)

Though it excises an essential thematic element, The Life of Emile Zola nevertheless champions such fundamental rights as free speech and equal justice under the law and such important ideas as the power of the written word and its ability to effect change. Zola's fiery treatise and impassioned courtroom soliloquy not only afford Muni his most stirring and moving moments, they also inspire us with meaningful rhetoric that's still relevant today. Though a bit of pomposity occasionally creeps into the film, director Dieterle tempers it with fiery emotion. Some period biopics can be stuffy and dull - and a movie titled The Life of Emile Zola most certainly gives one that impression - but Dieterle keeps the narrative moving and dresses it up with sumptuous production values that immerse us in the 19th century Parisian setting.

Muni, whose apparent insecurity over his looks inspired him to don heavy makeup and hide his face with beards, adopts a variety of guises as Zola, but they enhance his characterization rather than distract from it. His magnetic, nuanced performance brings the author to life, and though he carries the film, he doesn't dominate it. Strikingly, The Life of Emile Zola is more of an ensemble film than its eponymous title might suggest, and a cast of terrific character actors greatly enhances it.

Schildkraut won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his noble, sensitive portrayal of the unjustly tortured Dreyfus. His transformation from a vital husband, father, and military officer to an emaciated, haggard convict is both shocking and heartbreaking, and his stoic endurance and refusal to confess to a crime he did not commit engender plenty of admiration. Schildkraut's quiet grace contrasts nicely with Muni's bombast and he shares a lovely rapport with Sondergaard, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar the year before for Anthony Adverse. Holden, who made a splash the previous year as Dracula's Daughter, files a sympathetic performance as Zola's loyal wife, the always marvelous Donald Crisp is especially good as Zola's defense attorney, and such recognizable and esteemed performers as Henry O'Neill, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern, Grant Mitchell, and Harry Davenport add vigor and luster to the picture.

In addition to the three Oscars it won and Muni's Best Actor nomination, The Life of Emile Zola nabbed six other nods, including Best Director, Art Direction, Score, and Sound. It's arguably Dieterle's finest film (although some might give the edge to 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and still holds up well more than 80 years after its premiere. The novels of Emile Zola may be largely forgotten in this country, but this enduring biopic celebrates the man and his commitment to exposing society's ills, calling out injustice, and righting egregious wrongs. 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Life of Emile Zola arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative yields a lovely 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors the cinematography of Tony Gaudio, who won an Oscar the previous year for Anthony Adverse. Visible, but not overwhelming grain preserves the feel of film and excellent clarity and contrast, dense blacks, bright, stable whites, and nicely varied grays combine to produce an image the brims with detail and a palpable sense of depth. Strong shadow delineation keeps crush at bay and sharp close-ups highlight Muni's bushy mustache and beard and Schildkraut's increasingly gaunt face. Any errant nicks or marks on the print escape notice and though some scenes appear a bit softer than others, such inconsistencies are brief. Without question, The Life of Emile Zola has never looked better on home video, so fans shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound most of the time. During the film's opening scenes, I found some of the dialogue difficult to understand, perhaps due to composer Max Steiner's overzealous scoring. The issue abated as the action progressed, leading me to believe the imbalance may be baked into the original source. That one hiccup aside, the audio quality is quite good for a film of this vintage. A wide dynamic scale gives Steiner's sweeping, Oscar-nominated score plenty of room to breathe, all the crowd noise in the streets and courtroom adds essential atmosphere without drawing attention away from the narrative, and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been meticulously erased.

Special Features

Ranking:

Warner Archive ports over two items from the 2005 DVD: the 1939 radio adaptation with Paul Muni and original theatrical trailer. The two vintage Technicolor shorts (The Littlest Diplomat and Romance Road) and one vintage cartoon (Ain't We Got Fun) that also appeared on the DVD have been dropped in favor of two different vintage shorts, so if that material is important to you, you might want to hang on to your DVD.

  • Vintage Radio Adaptation (60 minutes) - Broadcast on May 8, 1939 as part of the popular Lux Radio Theater series, this truncated version of The Life of Emile Zola allows Muni the chance to reprise his Oscar-nominated performance. Josephine Hutchinson assumes the part of Mrs. Zola and actor Leslie Howard takes over hosting and narrating duties from usual emcee Cecil B. DeMille. This radio adaptation, which aired just days after the start of World War II, does identify Dreyfus as Jewish, but doesn't directly address the anti-Semitism that sealed his fate. In an interview with Howard between Acts 2 and 3, director William Dieterle explains how films portray history, notes the importance of dramatic license, and provides hope to the disheartened who might not have an Emile Zola to fight for them. During the curtain calls, Muni mentions his next film just might be a biography of Beethoven, but alas, that project never materialized.

  • Vintage Short: Taking the Count (HD, 22 minutes) - This breezy 1936 two-reel Vitaphone short features popular character Joe Palooka (Robert Norton), who takes a break from his boxing career at the behest of his girlfriend. She wants Joe to become a refined gentleman to impress her rich family, but can't predict the comic mayhem that results. Shemp Howard, brother of Three Stooges star Moe Howard, provides some slap-happy spice to this fun diversion.

  • Vintage Short: Mal Hallett and His Orchestra (HD, 9 minutes) - This 1937 Vitaphone one-reeler showcases Hallett's swinging band in a few different settings and features the spritely standard "(You're Just) Too Marvelous for Words." 

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 4 minutes) - The film's original preview hypes the drama as "the screen's most memorable accomplishment."

Final Thoughts

The masterful Muni's finely etched portrayal, a strong supporting cast, elegant direction, and lavish production values make The Life of Emile Zola a stirring biopic that holds up well 86 years after its premiere. Warner Archive gives this Best Picture Oscar winner the royal treatment with a top-quality transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, solid audio, and a fine array of supplements. Emile Zola may not be well remembered today, but this superior film reminds us what a brave, influential, and admirable figure he once was. Highly Recommended.