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Saturday, May 24, 2008

THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937)

The prestige bio-pics William Dieterle helmed for Warners (on Pasteur, Zola & Juarez) have fallen out of critical favor along with the indicative acting style of their star, Paul Muni. Significantly, the one in the series that holds up best, DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLETS/'40, was nixed by Muni & taken up (wonderfully) by Edward G. Robinson. Even so, waxworks or no, the films remain juicy & effective on their own terms, especially if you keep in mind the contemporary events they were designed to reflect. (And it doesn’t require much of a stretch to put forward some recent White House/bunker mentality parallels.) Fortunately for ZOLA, the Dreyfus Affair miscarriage of military justice story is so inherently compelling (half of the film takes place under the riveting laws of a French courtroom) that the main themes are self-dramatized while Dieterle leans on his German expressionist past for compelling use of shadows & teeming massed extras. (He wasn't Max Reinhardt assistant for nothing.) And what a characterful supporting cast they put together on this one!

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Did the scripters really have to open the film with Zola & roommate Paul Cezanne playing a scene lifted straight out of Puccini's LA BOHEME?

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Frederick Brown's ZOLA is the best English-language modern bio and, of course, it's able to include the 1950s revelations about anti-Dreyfuss zealots involvement in Zola's 'accidental' death.

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