Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Life of Emile Zola


Paul Muni (Birth name: Meshilem Meier Weisenfreund) was surely the best American actor of his generation. Most movie stars have only one character they can play: themselves, or at least their screen image of themselves. Muni delighted in changing his appearance and voice, and dug into each role obsessively. He is best remembered for his “biography” pictures, including this one and others where he was Louis Pasteur and Benito Juarez. But he could play gangsters, as in the original Scarface, and really just about anything he wanted. Near the end of his life he wanted to play Beethoven, but that idiot Jack Warner nixed it, saying “Who wants to see a movie about a blind composer?” Me, you jackass, and he was deaf, not blind. Thus were we deprived of what could have been a helluva movie.

Hollywood biopics to this day are, of course, usually a wild farrago of overwrought, exaggerated, dubious, false, or just plain made-up stuff. There are notable exceptions, but this is not one of them. However, at least this one had the decency to admit that right up front. A disclaimer at the first admits that the story is a fictionalization, that events and characters have been altered for dramatic purposes. I liked that. So I won’t complain, but will simply point out, that Zola’s estrangement from his old friend Paul Cézanne was not as amicable as we see in this movie. And even a cursory skimming of the facts of the scandalous Dreyfus affair will show you that they’ve taken considerable liberties. Most sadly, the fact that a big reason he was chosen as a scapegoat by the scumbag French generals was because he was a Jew is skimmed over very lightly, with a single reference on a printed page.

(An interesting sidelight: Here Zola is shown dying of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a defective Franklin stove. It was actually a blocked chimney … mysteriously blocked from the outside. There has always been speculation that he was murdered, but no one was ever able to prove it.)

But I think they got the spirit of the thing right. Movies like this existed to give people like Paul Muni and Charles Laughton opportunities to make stirring speeches in the spirit of the historical figures, and Muni gets two excellent opportunities to do this, by reading his famous open letter, “J’accuse,” and by delivering a speech to the jury in his libel trial. The latter is certainly the screenwriter’s fantasy, but is no less effective for that. Taken with a large grain of historical salt, this is a great movie.