Back on this day in 1840, controversial French author and activist Emile Zola was born. Nearly a century later, in 1937, Warner Bros. made an equally controversial film about Zola's life, aptly titled The Life of Emile Zola, that went on to win WB's very first "Best Picture" Academy Award®, five years before the more well-known Casablanca achieved the same feat for the studio.
Starring Paul Muni, who gave an Oscar-nominated performance in the title role, this overlooked cinematic gem details Zola's growth from struggling writer to major novelist who then risks all his fame to take on the French military in a quest for justice. In what would become known as "The Dreyfus Affair," the French military sentenced Captain Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment for giving secrets to the Germans in 1894. Dreyfus, played by Joseph Schildkraut in his "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar-winning role, was innocent of the crime and when the military investigator Colonel Georges Picquart discovered the real traitor, he was relieved of his investigative duties and transferred to Africa.
Photo of Emile Zola (left) used by make-up artists as reference, including department head Perc Westmore (center photo, right) to transform actor Paul Muni (right) into the French literary giant.
In 1898, having learned of the miscarriage of justice, Zola wrote the now-famous article "J'Accuse" on the front page of the Paris daily newspaper L'Aurore. Taking on the French government and risking his successful career and prosperous life, Zola intended his article to bring forth a libel case in which a trial would help free Dreyfus. Things got even crazier after that, but we won't spoil the suspense.
Nominated for ten Academy Awards and winner of three, The Life of Emile Zola remains one of cinema's first examples of the power of the people taking on government corruption. It was a risky proposition for Warner Bros. to bring such a story to the screen, but it paid off handsomely.