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Film / The House of Rothschild

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The House of Rothschild is a 1934 film directed by Alfred L. Werker.

It is a fictionalized re-telling of the rise of the Rothschilds, who pioneered international banking in Europe. The film opens in 1780 as family patriarch Meyer Rothschild (George Arliss) has established a prosperous trading business, but is still forced to live in a ghetto in Frankfurt, where he has to bribe antisemitic tax collectors. He manages to pay off the tax man but suffers a dreadful reversal when ten thousand gulden is stolen by bandits before he can receive it. A bitter Meyer tells his five sons to establish banking houses throughout Europe, to reduce the need for risky cash transfers, and also to enrich themselves as much as possible, because Jews need money to protect themselves in an antisemitic Europe.

Cut forward 32 years, and the Rothschild sons, led by the eldest, Nathan (also played by Arliss) have succeeded in founding five famous banking houses. The Rothschilds, working together, issue loans to the anti-Napoleon alliance, and the emperor of the French is defeated and exiled to Elba. Still, however, the Rothschilds are shunned and discriminated against by European high society, much to Nathan's bitterness.

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A most unusual film for its era, directly addressing antisemitism in a manner that Hollywood otherwise simply never did: the Rothschilds live in a ghetto, they are persecuted and oppressed, and Meyer talks about how Jews are forced to work as merchants and moneylenders because Christian Europe won't let them own land or work a trade. American cinema wouldn't take the subject of antisemitism up so directly again until Gentleman's Agreement in 1947.

Boris Karloff plays Count Ledrantz, an antisemitic noble who works against the Rothschilds. Loretta Young plays Nathan's daughter Julie, who falls in love with a Gentile army officer. Alfred Newman composed the score.


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Tropes:

  • All Jews Are Cheapskates: Even a movie about antisemitism can't resist this joke. A cabbie complains about the small tip he got from Nathan, saying that even Nathan's daughter Julie tips him more. Nathan shoots back that Julie has a rich father, but he doesn't.
  • Cannot Keep a Secret: The Duke of Wellington cheerfully admits this, saying "I can't keep a secret" when giving Nathan an advance tip about the mammoth French loan.
  • The Clan: The Rothschilds, a single family in 1780, have become this by 1812, with five Rothschilds having established successful families in five different European cities, hence the house of Rothschild. The film sticks with Nathan and the London Rothschilds, however.
  • Corrupt Bureaucrat: The tax collector who initially threatens to exact an exorbitant 20,000 gulden judgment on Meyer, but then agrees to charge him only 2000 in tax in return for a bribe of 5000. Meyer is humiliated by the whole thing.
  • Greedy Jew: Deconstructed. Meyer's speech to his sons advises them to amass their fortunes as a matter of survival in an anti-Semitic Europe.
  • Historical Domain Character: Most of them. Nathan Rothschild really did bankroll the Duke of Wellington's campaigns in France.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: It gives one to The Duke of Wellington. Regardless of his relations with the Rothschilds during The Napoleonic Wars, the real Duke in his time as Prime Minister was a proven anti-semite (after the film), who vocally opposed a bill to give rights to Jews by insisting that England was "a Christian country" and any attempt to give rights of voting and other liberties to Jews would change the character of England. Incidentally, the Duke's own descendant, Arthur Wellesley, the Fifth of his Name, was a noted member of the British far-right and a Nazi-sympathizer in the decade of this film's release.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: The Rothschilds in the film, believe supporting the fight against Napoleon will contribute to amelioration of Jews. In actual fact, it was Napoleon who was most responsible for Jewish emancipation, and was indeed a heroic figure for many 19th Century European Jews from Heinrich Heine to Sigmund Freud, and the film's allegory of making Napoleon a proto-Hitler as in a looming European dictator is entirely off-base (the fact that it was the British who broke the treaty with Napoleonic France and declared war first is naturally unaddressed).
  • Identical Grandson: George Arliss plays both Meyer Rothschild and his son Nathan.
  • Instant Messenger Pigeon: Eventually it's revealed that this is how Nathan is getting early intelligence about how the army's doing in France. He has people send him messages from the front by homing pigeon.
  • Kissing Cousins: Mentioned in one scene where Nathan expresses reluctance to approve Julie's relationship with Capt. Fitzroy, stating that Rothschilds marry "other Rothschilds". Truth in Television, as the real Rothschild family had a habit of doing this to keep the money within the family.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: Possibly the first example of this trope. It isn't random that Count Ledrantz, the most antisemitic character in the film, is a German. And just to make it more obvious, Ledrantz stirs up a pogrom in Frankfurt, with Germans throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish businesses.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The Duke of Wellington, who gives the Rothschilds tremendous credit for their financial support in the campaign against Napoleon. When Nathan Rothschild isn't invited to a celebratory dinner, the Duke gets angry, and pays a visit to Nathan's house instead.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Nathan's brothers try to get him to switch sides and back Napoleon, pointing out that the Allies have abandoned them and Napoleon will give them much better financial terms. Nathan refuses, stating that the Rothschilds have always been for peace not war, and he won't make money by bankrolling a war.
  • Splash of Color: The last scene, a royal reception in which the Prince Regent makes Nathan a baron, was shot in color. This was one of the first-ever uses of the three-strip Technicolor process that soon became the industry standard.
  • Split Screen: Used for each of the other four Rothschild brothers as they receive word of the mammoth French loan.
  • Time Skip: 32 years between the introductory scene in 1780 and 1812, when the Rothschilds have established their banks and are backing the war against Napoleon.
  • Title Drop: The Duke of Wellington gives a celebratory toast for the house of Rothschild.
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