© 1934 20th Century Pictures

The House of Rothschild (1934)

Set roughly between 1780 and 1815, the film nominally tells the story of the first and second generations of the powerful financial family that rose from the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt to the level of English nobility, countering anti-semitism with familial loyalty, shrewd lending policies, and making difficult decisions that not only made them enormous profits, but also contributed to the peace of their adoptive countries, and Europe as a whole. But given the timing of this film, it is hard to not see this as a commentary on the then rising antisemitism that was already erupting into pogroms throughout Europe. I had read that in the events leading up to WWII, many in Hollywood actually supported Germany, rather than socialist Russia, seeing it as the lesser of two evils. So it was a bit surprising to see such an early film take such a strong stand against antisemitism.

Boris Karloff is good in an early role as an English count who scorns the Rothschild family, but then finds himself in a position in which he must beg their help. But the film is really carried by George Arliss, and English theater actor who plays both the founding father Mayer Rothschild and the eldest son Nathan Rothschild, who singlehandedly saved the bank of England during the Napoleonic wars. Arliss was trained in the theater, and continually plays to the back of the house in this film, making for a strong performance that unfortunately completely lacks subtlety or restraint.

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