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The House of Rothschild
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,The House of Rothschild

The House of Rothschild

During the early sound era, film biographies proved to be a popular genre with audiences who enjoyed dramatic depictions of some of the most famous historical figures in the world. And foremost among the actors who helped popularize this trend and specialized in biopics was British actor George Arliss. Often considered the greatest stage actor of his day by theatre critics - and by his own admission - it was inevitable that Arliss would be recruited by Hollywood to make motion pictures. One of his earliest successes was the 1921 silent film biography of Disraeli, based on the play by Louis N. Parker and, curiously enough, when he starred in the 1929 sound remake of Disraeli, he won the Best Actor Oscar® (in that same Academy Award race, he ran against himself in The Green Goddess, yet another remake of his earlier silent hit in 1923). Disraeli was just the beginning of a long line of historical figures Arliss portrayed on the screen; Among them were Alexander Hamilton (1931), Voltaire (1933), the Duke of Wellington in The Iron Duke (1934) and Cardinal Richelieu (1935). But one of his most ambitious performances and one that was a personal project for him was the dual roles of Mayer Rothschild and his son Nathan Rothschild in the 1934 biographical portrait, The House of Rothschild.

The story of the creation and rise of Europe's most powerful banking establishment and the five brothers who guided it to international success from their separate cities of operation in Frankfort, Paris, London, Naples and Vienna was a fascinating topic for Depression era audiences who were curious about the rich and powerful. Arliss found the story of the Rothschild family an irresistible screen subject as well but for different reasons; he saw the family's struggle from their early years of abject poverty to their legacy of owning the largest private fortune in the world as an indictment of anti-Semitism but also as an inspirational tale of perseverance and faith.

Arliss first became interested in the project when he read George Hembert Westley's play Rothschild in 1931 and urged Warner Bros., where he was under contract, to buy it. The studio complied but did nothing with the property and when Arliss completed his contract with Warner Bros., he signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox, where he convinced studio mogul Darryl Zanuck to purchase Rothschild from his former studio. Although Nunnally Johnson is credited with the screenplay for The House of Rothschild, an early draft of the script was penned by Maude T. Howell and Sam Mintz (both uncredited) and it was this version for which Arliss provided some additional notes and recommendations for the narrative. He suggested adding a prologue to the story in which the Rothschild family is shown being subjected to prejudice and unjust laws in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt where they are forbidden to venture out of their district and must observe daily curfews. Besides fleshing out the character of Mayer Rothschild, who mapped out a banking strategy for his sons on his deathbed, the screenwriters also used the character of Count Ledrantz (played by Boris Karloff) as a symbol of the anti-Semitic hatred that created Jewish ghettos and was on the rise again in the world, especially in Germany.

Certainly anyone seeing The House of Rothschild in 1934 would have noted the film's parallels between the persecution and restrictions that the Rothschild family had to overcome and what was happening to the Jews of Europe as Hitler rose to power. Yet The House of Rothschild is primarily a biographical portrait of the family with the central focus on Nathan (Arliss), whose intelligence and political cunning manages to outwit his rivals in the world of international finance. The film may be no timeless classic; Arliss's acting style is theatrical and unsubtle by contemporary standards, the Rothschild family is idealized for the sake of the film's agenda and there is a romantic subplot involving the Rothschild's daughter Julie (Loretta Young) and a gentile (Robert Young) that adds little to the story's momentum. Still, The House of Rothschild is a handsomely mounted character study and a typical example of the sort of potentially controversial subject matter that producer Darryl Zanuck liked to address in popular entertainments. Among his other triumphs in this area are I Am a Fugitive on a Chain Gang (1932), made while he was still at Warner Bros., The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), which was another film about anti-Semitism, and Pinky (1949).

While The House of Rothschild was designed as a showcase for Arliss's talents, the film also offered memorable supporting roles to some of Hollywood's finest supporting players such as C. Aubrey Smith as the Duke of Wellington, Helen Westley as Gudula Rothschild, Reginald Owen as Herries, Alan Mowbray as Prince Metternich, Florence Arliss (the wife of George Arliss) as Hannah Rothschild and Boris Karloff as Baron Ledrantz. Karloff had already established himself as a major horror star with the boxoffice successes of I>Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932) but he wanted to avoid typecasting and prove he was capable of other roles. The House of Rothschild gave him the opportunity to play a villainous character without the aid of horror makeup and suitably impressed the film's star. Arliss later stated in his autobiography, "Most of the actors I knew well; I had either met them on the screen or played with them on the stage. The only one I had never met was the terrible Boris Karloff - the professional bogeyman. I was therefore considerably surprised to find him one of the most retiring and gentle gentlemen it has ever been my lot to meet."

The House of Rothschild is also notable for its final sequence, shot in three-strip Technicolor, in which Nathan Rothschild is made a baron by the King of England after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. Most existing prints of the film only present the sequence in black and white but the TCM version will feature the original Technicolor version. According to some sources, The House of Rothschild was not banned in Germany as expected. Instead Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, had the film re-edited to depict the Rothschilds in a negative light, reinforcing all of the racial stereotypes that would later make German director Veit Harlan's Jud Suss (1940) the most notorious example of this in the cinema of propaganda.

When the film opened in theatres, most major film critics were glowing in their reviews. Mordant Hall of The New York Times wrote, "Although the producers juggle with certain dates and here and there a name is changed, the story runs along smoothly and swiftly, clinging substantially to facts in the major points. Where there are embellished bits of history, it is all so well done that it makes a grand show. In fact the picture is engrossing throughout. The dialogue is smart and often witty and the direction and staging are excellent...Not only does Mr. Arliss's work here excel that which he has done in any other picture, but most of the other roles are acted expertly. Boris Karloff, without any facial disguise, appears to advantage as the sinister Baron Ledrantz." And Variety called it, "A fine picture on all counts in the acting, writing, and directing. It handles the delicate subject of anti-semitism with tact and restraint." The film would go on to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture but lost to It Happened One Night.

During the past two centuries, the Rothschild family has frequently been linked to conspiracy theories and claims that the banking institution belongs to the Illuminati, a shadowy group that is believed to be the masterminds behind events that will establish a New World Order. Whether there is any truth to this is debatable but certainly a more objective and historically accurate film biography of the Rothschilds would be welcome. In the meantime, The House of Rothschild is well worth seeing as an old-fashioned but compelling example of a big budget studio biopic.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Alfred Werker; Sidney Lanfield (uncredited)
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (screenplay); George Hembert Westley (play "Rothschild"); George Arliss, Maude T. Howell, Sam Mintz (contributing writer (uncredited))
Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Barbara McLean, Allen McNeil
Cast: George Arliss (Mayer Rothschild/Nathan Rothschild), Boris Karloff (Count Ledrantz), Loretta Young (Julie Rothschild), Robert Young (Capt. Fitzroy), C. Aubrey Smith (Duke of Wellington), Arthur Byron (Baring), Helen Westley (Gudula Rothschild), Reginald Owen (Herries), Florence Arliss (Hannah Rothschild), Alan Mowbray (Prince Metternich).

by Jeff Stafford

Karloff: The Man, The Monster, The Movies by Denis Gifford (Curtis Books).