top of page
And The WInner  Is - a dive into the story behind every film to win Best Picture
  • L Alan Reitano



The 10th film to win best picture was a bio-pic – The Life Of Emile Zola, from 1937. The Warner Brothers release was produced by Harry Blanke, and directed by William Dieterle, and is based on the 1928 book Zola and His Time, by Matthew Josepheson. The budget was just under $700,000 and was the third highest grossing film at the box office in 1937.

The film was nominated for a record breaking ten Academy Awards – winning three – Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Joseph Schikdkraut. It was Warner’s first Best Picture win.


Emile Zola 1902

The story covers the life of Emile Zola a 19th century French writer known for his stark naturalism and social commentary.

Zola was born in 1840 – and was childhood friends with artist Paul Cezanne. Zola’s father had died leaving the family with only a small pension – and Zola was raised in poverty. The novel that brought him attention was La Confession de Claude, (1865). The story was so scandalous the police got involved. His novel L'Assommoir, (1877) - made him rich.

He would ultimately write 20 novels during his life – or about one a year until his death.


Alfred Dreyfus

Late in life – and with nothing to gain personally – Zola became embroiled in the Alfred Dreyfus Affair. Alfred Dreyfus was a Jewish Army officer convicted of treason, and sent to Devils Island, for sending secrets to the Germans.

Lt. Col. Georges Picquart later found evidence of Dryefus’ innocence, proof that another officer Ferdinand Esterhazy – was in fact the guilty party.

Picquart came forward with his evidence, but instead of exonerating Dreyfus, the French High Command, decided to protect Esterhazy – and themselves.

Lt. Col. Picquart was reassigned to Africa – to get him out of the way – while Major Hubert-Joseph Henry forged documents that seemed to prove Dreyfus guilty.

Picquart’s attorneys sent the exonerating evidence to a Senator named Kestner, and further evidence of innocence was brought by the Dreyfus family, as well as Esterhazy’s estranged family.

The army had to act. In a closed door court martial/kangroo court Esterhazy was acquitted. Picquart was charged for violating the secrets law – in releasing his evidence.

Zola – ever the social commentator – published an article on the front page of the Paris paper “L’Aurore.” The banner headline read “J’Accuse!” He laid out the evidence accusing the military high command of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism.

Zola believed he’d be charged for libel, and as a result, the new evidence he had would be presented in court for the public to see. Zola was charged and convicted of libel, and after exhausting all his appeals – fled to London – to avoid jail.

All of Zola’s evidence eventually came out – and an amnesty bill was passed clearing Zola, Picquart and Dreyfus. It also indemnified the forger Henry, and the army high command – who had committed the crimes that caused the scandal.

Zola died in 1902. It’s worth watching the movie to find out how.


Actor Paul Muni was hired to play Zola, after George Arliss left Warner for Fox. Muni had won best actor in 1936 for his portrayal of Louis Pasteur.

Paul Muni

Muni was a five-time Academy Award® nominee, who started out in Yiddish Theater in the 30s’. He’s best known for his roles in Scarface, and The Story Of Louis Pasteur. Throughout his career he typically played powerful and controversial men. He was so respected in Hollywood he was allowed to choose his parts, a practice the studios normally frowned upon. In addition to an Oscar® for his role as Pasteur, he also won a Tony® for Inherit the Wind.

In preparation for the role of Zola, Paul Muni - as was his practice – meticulously studied the speech patterns, and mannerisms of the historic figure, to create a realistic portrayal of the man, and in a slightly uncommon practice Muni’s scenes were shot in sequence. (If you don’t know. Most movies are shot out of order. All scenes at a particular location, or with particular actors, are shot all at once – regardless of whether they appear at the beginning, middle or end of the film. The main reason for this is of course to save time and money. After all the necessary scenes are shot in one place, the cast and crew move on to the next location – and shoot all the needed scenes there. The Higgledy-Piggledy scenes are then re-assembled in order of the script by the editor to make up the final film.)

The fact that Muni’s scenes were shot in sequence is more than a little odd. They were technically shot in sequence - but backwards. At the end of the story Muni – as Zola – is an old man with a longish – grey beard. It only made sense to start there. It’s much easier and cheaper to trim, and darken a long beard than it is to wait for a month or two for a short one to grow out, much less turn grey. So Muni went through the film backwards – regressing in age as he shot scenes. He presumably had a portrait of Dorian Grey in his dressing room getting older.

Muni was nominated for best actor – but lost out to Spencer Tracy – in Captains Courageous.


Gloria Holden

Gloria Holden was cast as Zola’s wife Alexandrina. Holden was born in London and immigrated to the U.S. as a child. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Her best known films are The Life Of Emile Zola, and in the title role as Dracula’s Daughter. Gloria Holden died in 1991.


Vladimir Sokoloff

Vladimir Sokoloff played the part of Paul Cezanne. Sokoloff was born in Moscow, Russia in 1889. After graduating the Russian Academy of Theater Arts – Sokoloff joined the Moscow Art Theater.

With the rise of Nazism, Sokoloff – who was Jewish – moved to Paris then to the U.S.. His first play in America was Danton’s Death, directed by Orson Welles. He found regular work in Hollywood playing a variety of nationalities. He died in 1962.


Joseph Schildkraut

Joseph Schildkraut played Captain Dreyfus in The Life Of Emile Zola. He won Best Supporting Actor for the role. He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Otto Frank in The Diary Of Anne Frank. Schildkraut was born in Vienna. His father Richard was also an actor. He came to the U.S. while on tour with his father. He began working in silent films with D.W. Griffith, and Cecil B. DeMille. Joseph Schildkraut was nominated for an Emmy for an appearance on “Sam Benedict,” a legal drama from NBC,, and appeared in several episodes of “The Twilight Zone.”

Schildkraut died of a heart attack at home in New York, in 1964.


Recently there have been several books about the relationship between Hollywood and Hitler.

In an effort to not antagonize the Nazis, the studios soft pedaled - or cancelled altogether – films that were staunchly anti-Nazi in nature.

The Life of Emile Zola, was expressly studied for some of these books, pointing out that there is no mention in the film of anti-Semitism – nor is the word "Jewish" mentioned, in regard to Dreyfus – the innocent Jewish man convicted of treason.

While it’s unclear if this was intentional on the studio’s part, by 1937 the Nazi Party had already seized power in Germany, and was helping in the Spanish Civil War. The military buildup that would lead to World War II was well under way. The irony is unbelievable. The movie studios were almost all run by European, Jewish immigrants – mostly Russian. It’s thought that they were simply acting in their best business interests – not wanting to antagonize the Hays Office and censor in chief Joseph Breen – a staunch Catholic, nor did they want to lose the German film market – the largest in Europe.


On the 100th anniversary of Zola’s “J’Accuse,” article, La Croix – the Catholic paper apologized for its anti-Semitic editorials at the time of Dreyfus affair. Emile Zola still has a presence in modern culture – even if most people don’t realize it. The BBC series the The Paradise – is based on Zola’s novel Au Bohneur Des Dames about the lives of women working in a department store, and the American PBS Series Mr. Selfredge draws - in part - on The Paradise.

The Life Of Emile Zola, is a good film and for the most part well-acted and directed. It seems slow compared to today’s style of shooting. The story though, is solid and the reason it won Best Picture is clear.

The political situation in the world today – can be seen reflected from an earlier time. It the age old tale - the struggle for truth, pitted against the thirst for power - ultimately stirring up the masses, and forcing otherwise normal people to choose sides. It’s the proverbial history repeating itself.

As Zola’s famous speech to the court proclaims -

“Truth is on the march, and nothing shall stop it.”
2 views0 comments


bottom of page