Tuesday, May 27, 2014

1934 - The House of Rothschild

Milestone time! The following review represents the 200th film I have screened for this project. It's sobering to think the 100th film (Pulp Fiction) was reviewed just a touch over one year after the project's commencement, yet the subsequent 100 films took over three times as long to get through. But who's quibbling?

And now we close off 1934's record-setting 12-way Best Picture race with...

The House of Rothschild
Alfred L. Werker
Nunnally Johnson
(based on the play by George Hembert Westley)
George Arliss, Boris Karloff, Loretta Young, Robert Young, C. Aubrey Smith
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

As an old Jewish money changer in 18th century Prussia, Mayer Rothschild (Arliss) is forced to deal with many injustices from the government. After being gouged by the tax collector, his dying request to his five sons is to head up a bank in each of the major cities across Europe. Thirty years later, Nathan (also Arliss) is running the London branch and becomes financially involved in the war effort against Napoleon. His help is not welcome by all, however. Count Ledrantz (Karloff) stubbornly refuses to do business with Nathan due to his being Jewish, but Nathan uses his wealth, power and cunning to strike a deal on his own terms.

The House of Rothschild treads a fine line between portraying its protagonist as a sympathetic character who is plagued by anti-Semitism and a scheming miser who fulfils the unflattering Jewish stereotype against which he is fighting. Consequently, I found myself bouncing back and forth between pitying Rothschild's persecution and deploring his deviousness.

On the surface, this seems like the kind of character flaw that makes for great cinema, but unfortunately, I couldn't shake the niggling feeling that this was actually a flaw with the production. There's a good chance the film-makers merely accentuated the stereotype of the Jewish money-grubber for effect. Then again, it would be understandably difficult to avoid painting Rothschild as avaricious since the real Rothschild was one of the wealthiest men in England.

Despite all that, George Arliss delivers a sincere performance as Nathan Rothschild, genuine in both his frugality and his indignation. Best known for his horror movie roles, Boris Karloff (pictured, with Arliss) is imposing as the bigoted Count Ledrantz, largely due to his striking eyebrows.

It's also worth noting the somewhat sketchy attempt at a colour sequence. Obviously, colour film technology was still in its infancy in 1934, so the lavish sets and costumes of the film's final scene initially seemed to me to be the victim of a horrible post-production colourisation, but it turns out it was actually one of the first scenes ever to be shot using three-strip Technicolor. Lastly, The House of Rothschild, like Here Comes the Navy, also joins the Only-Nominated-for-Best-Picture-and-Nothing-Else Club. Surprisingly, though, the film still placed third in the Best Picture race (the Academy announced runners-up back then).

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