DVD Review HTF REVIEW: The Life Of Emile Zola (RECOMMENDED).

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Feb 7, 2005.

  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

    May 7, 2001
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    The Life Of Emile Zola
    Special Edition

    Studio: Warner Brothers
    Year: 1937
    Rated: Not Rated
    Film Length: 116 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
    Audio: DD Monaural
    Color/B&W: B&W
    Languages: English
    Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
    MSRP: $19.97
    Package: Single disc/Keepcase

    The Feature:
    With the Academy Awards almost upon us, Warner Brothers has released three new installments for their “2005 Best Picture Promotion”. The first is a Two-Disc Special Edition of the 1981 BP winner, Chariots Of Fire which replaces the early entry MAR’d version while the second two are new editions to the format; Best Picture winners, The Broadway Melody (1929) and the featured film, The Life Of Emile Zola (1937), which captured ten Academy Award nominations, winning in three categories.

    Emile Zola (played by Paul Muni) is a struggling writer who shares a run down attic apartment with his best friend Paul Cezanne (played by Vladimir Sokoloff), another struggling artist of sorts – a painter. After taking a clerking job, Emile has just finished his first book entitled “Nana”. Emile seems to have found his niche in writing, covering topics of government scandal and corruption. But shortly after it’s published, he is visited at work by an official from the Public Prosecutor’s Office who sternly warns Emile of his writings, and lectures him on being impudent and portraying France in a negative way. “Nana”, his first novel, goes on to be hugely successful.

    The war of 1870 would invariably cause the downfall of France to the Prussians, and after learning the many cover-ups and bunglings of the French army, Emile would appropriately name his next book, “Downfall”. Fearing backlashes from the government and its citizens, military officials deploy the Chief Censor to demand punishment from Emile for his novel defaming and criticizing the French military. Emile defies the censorship office, telling them he’ll continue to write whatever he wants. His future publishing’s would lead to great wealth and world fame.

    France is again under the microscope, when one of its highest ranking military officials is accused and convicted of treason. Captain Alfred Dreyfus (played by Joseph Schildkraut) is accused of passing on military secrets and it becomes clear that his conviction is nothing more than an attempt at railroading an innocent man to prevent the truth from surfacing.

    The real traitor is eventually charged with the treason but his ordeal is nothing more than damage control by the French government in an attempt to restore faith among the highest ranking French military officers, due to the cloud of suspicion and scandal that now hangs over them. To no one’s surprise, the same court that found the innocent man guilty, finds the guilty man, innocent. Another soldier Colonel Picquart (played by Henry O’Neill), is subsequently charged with insubordination, after claiming he too has knowledge of the cover-up and can offer evidence of a forged document to verify the claims of the defense.

    With no where else to turn, Captain Dreyfus’ wife Lucie (played by Gale Sondergaard), approaches Emile for his help knowing his zest for tackling corruption among public officials. Knowing the innocent man is rotting away on the infamous Devil’s Island, Emile agrees to help.

    Emile gathers a number of officials and reporters in a display of support for the wrongly convicted officer and publishes an extensive manifesto in the local newspaper denouncing the officials who were responsible for the corruption and cover-ups. The published letter results in charges for Emile for speaking out against the government as well as the Dreyfus scandal, and suddenly the writer himself is faced with making one of the most difficult decisions of his life.

    The Life Of Emile Zola was based on Matthew Josephson’s book, “Zola and His Time” and scripted by Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine covering France’s champion of the oppressed. The film was directed by William Dieterle who was responsible for many great films from the Golden Era such as Portrait of Jennie (1948), I'll Be Seeing You (1945), Dark City (1950), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Juarez (1939), The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) among dozens of others.

    Though Paul Muni’s career would span thirty years (from 1929 – 1959), he would only appear in twenty two films, many of which are arguably the best films to come out of the 1930’s i.e. Scarface (1932), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), The Good Earth (1937), Juarez (1939) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935) for which Muni won his only Academy Award. These are all films which need to be released on DVD including the original Scarface which is only available through the Deluxe Gift Set fleecing.

    The Life Of Emile Zola was the very first film to capture the Best Picture award for the Warner Brothers Studio. The film would be nominated in ten categories including Best Actor (Paul Muni), Best Art Direction (Anton Grot), Best Assistant Director (Russell Saunders), Best Director (William Dieterle), Best Music Score (Leo F. Forbstein and Max Steiner), Best Sound Recording (Nathan Levinson), Best Writing – Original Story (Heinz Herald & Geza Herczeg) and winning the following, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Joseph Schildkraut), Best Writing, Screenplay (Heinz Herald , Geza Herczeg & Norman Reilly Raine) and Best Picture (Henry Blanke).

    The Feature: 4.5/5

    Aside from some age related issues, WB has done another tremendous job with the presentation of this film.

    As we’ve come to expect with many films of a similar vintage, black levels aren’t exceptionally deep but certainly more than adequate. Whites appeared to be mostly clean – only appearing murky occasionally. As a result, the level of grayscale was acceptable but not hugely vast. The level of contrast and shadow detail was perfectly fine.

    The overall level of image definition was pleasing which I would describe as slightly soft. Typical of the period, close-ups on the female leads would be softer in comparison. Overall it might be best described as slightly dupey looking. There was a slight amount of fine film grain present throughout which offered up a pleasing film-like image with a decent amount of depth and dimension.

    There were instances of dust and dirt as well as blemishes and scratches but never to a point where they became bothersome or intrusive. The overall image was stable and traces of light speckle were apparent from time to time. The authoring seems to have been handled well as there are no signs of compression issues to mention nor were there any traces of haloing.

    A few minor issues to mention but for the most part this transfer looks terrific and more than satisfying for a film of almost 70 years. Great job WB…!

    Video: 4.5/5

    Not much to say in terms of audio but this DD monaural track does what it needs to do quite admirably.

    There was some hiss present throughout the entire film – only a slight amount however. There were a few slight pops and a couple of diminutive audio dropouts or glitches, one in particular occurred during the infamous courtroom speech at the end of the film. The overall tonality of the track is natural but slightly raw.

    This is a mostly dialogue driven film, but some decent dynamics can be heard for example during the drumming of the French army and when the city was under rioting after Zola’s letter was printed. Not show-off material by any means but certainly better than you might expect from a 70 year old film. A special note of interest must be mentioned with respect to Max Steiner’s wonderful score which appropriately adds to the theme of this film.

    Dialogue was bold and mostly clear. There were only a few occasions when spoken dialogue became slightly harsh or edgy but this was never troublesome.

    Audio: 3.5/5

    Special Features:
    This disc comes with several terrific inclusions to complement the feature film starting with:
    [*] A feature entitled, The Littlest Diplomat which is a 1937 Vitaphone short, shot in Technicolor which stars Sybil Jason and Lumsden Hare and directed by Bobby Connolly. Sybil visits her grandfather, a sternly cantankerous British Colonel stationed at a garrison in India, and she helps negotiate a diplomatic truce between him and the local natives. The short is in very good condition. Duration: 19:07 minutes.
    [*] Romance Road is another Vitaphone Technicolor short from 1938 which was also directed by Bobby Connolly. A sergeant and a group of his constables from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are dispatched to keep the peace as the impending rail line goes through Moose Jaw - wearing their red serges, of course. This short is in terrific condition. Duration: 18:45 minutes.
    [*] Ain't We Got Fun is a MM short from 1937 which features a houseful of mice, a cat and his cantankerous old owner. A terrific short but needs some work in terms of presentation. Duration: 8:23 minutes.
    [*] Lux Radio Theater Broadcast from 5/8/1939 which stars Paul Muni. Duration: 58:26 minutes.
    [*] And finally, the Theatrical Trailer is included which is in reasonably good condition. Duration: 4:19 minutes.

    Special Features: 4.5/5

    **Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**

    Final Thoughts:
    The fact is, Paul Muni - one of the best actors ever, is magnificent in portraying the life of one of France's most controversial literary figures and outspoken activists. The Life Of Emile Zola uncovers every component of the great man's complex personality and his personal triumphs in a manner that not only touches deeply but is equally engaging. Besides the wonderful performance of Muni, the direction of Dieterle and the supporting cast, add equally to the magic of this gripping tale.

    Aside from the importance of this bio-pic, Warner’s presentation is sure to please and they have trimmed the disc with an assortment of special features to complement the package nicely. Save a spot on your shelf for this early Best Picture winner.

    Overall Rating: 4/5 (not an average)


    Release Date: February 1st, 2005
  2. Russell G

    Russell G Fake Shemp

    Sep 20, 2002
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    I was on the fence on this title, but this review and some good word of mouth from others has pushed me over to order this the next time I get movies. Great review, as per usual!
  3. Mike Frezon

    Mike Frezon Moderator

    Oct 9, 2001
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    Rensselaer, NY
    Herb: Excellent review! Glad to hear Warners has done another fine job in bringing this title into the world of DVD.

    As I mentioned in Robert Harris' thread on the title, I saw this once broadcast on TV about 30 years ago and have been anxious to see it since. This film made that much of an impression on me. Its already on my shelf. Now I just need to find the time.

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