The first quarter of The Life of Emile Zola is a paint-by-numbers movie biography of the famed writer, condensing his early years into a few scenes while simultaneously providing little insight into Emile Zola the individual or explaining why we should care about him in the first place. It is only later that it becomes clear why these awkward early scenes were included; they may not have been presented in the most original fashion, but they provided necessary information to understand Zola's evolution. Once the film arrives at its true purpose, Zola's role in the historic Alfred Dreyfus affair, the film comes alive dramatically if not cinematically. The story of the Dreyfus affair is inherently compelling, and this is a solid (if not entirely factual) dramatization. From the beginning, the story leaves no doubt as to Dreyfus' innocence, and does not shy away from depicting the ruling officers as more concerned with preserving their power than with serving in the interest of France. The filmmakers do, however, shy away from pointing the finger at anti-Semitism, and that is the film's biggest failing. Only once does the film make any connection to anti-Semitism as the reason behind Dreyfus' persecution. Still, if the film is not an indictment of anti-Semitism, it is an indictment of mob mentality, as the easily manipulated nature of public opinion is ridiculed time and again. Paul Muni, acting under heavy makeup, is good as Zola, even if one never loses sight of the fact that one is watching a performance, and Joseph Schildkraut won an Oscar for playing Dreyfus. But the film is stolen by the group of actors playing the ruling officers, namely Robert H. Barrat, Louis Calhern, Robert Warwick, and especially Harry Davenport, who is cast completely against type as a scheming Chief of Staff.