I don’t have as much of a knowledge of history as I probably should. To that end, it might be slightly amazing that I had never heard of the Rothschild family of European bankers before this film. Even so, it didn’t concern me as much as it might’ve when I decided to start The House of Rothschild; my concern lied squarely with the film itself, which I took to be a sophisticated English period piece along with most of what such a description would entail. That it starred George Arliss seemed to both confirm and alleviate these concerns; he’s a fine actor, and I enjoyed him in Disraeli, but it did seem that he had a propensity to star in just such films as these. Well, once again, I was pleasantly surprised; this is a film very much like Disraeli, in that it is indeed a sophisticated English period piece, but thanks largely to Arliss (as well as the film’s smartly-engineered production), it ends up being much more enjoyable than a sophisticated English period piece otherwise would be.
Mayer Rothschild, the patriarch of the family, lives with his wife and five sons in a Jewish ghetto in Prussia, where he is forced to connive and bribe in order to keep the prejudiced taxmen at bay so that his family ends up better off than he. Upon his deathbed, he lays out his wishes for the family; the five sons are to expand the family’s wealth by establishing banks in the five capitals of Europe, and they are to always remain together, a family business, to improve the lives of both themselves and the Jewish people. Of course, once the sons have done this, enemies are wont to pop out of the woodwork, and the film explores the chess game played by de-facto family head Nathan Rothschild with the other major banking houses against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, all for both the lasting effect of the Rothschild family as well as the future of all Jews across Europe. If, like me, you go into this film with little more than the Wikipedia summary of the film, you’ll be surprised to find there’s a lot more to this film than the meager synopsis given there. What’s more, there’s really more to the film than it seems in general. Arliss is enjoyable, though he admittedly does do basically the same things he did in Disraeli; the political intrigue was interesting, and held attention through the film’s thrifty running time; and, for once, there was a musical score, to underline certain sections of the film that needed that added boost. Really, there was a lot that the film did right, and not a lot that it did wrong; the only thing was that the film didn’t seem to do enough of what it did right to really stand out as potentially a great film, or even the best of its year. But still, it was good, and I got through it with no issues, so I’m happy. Special mention should go to the final sequence of the film, which was one of the first shot in three-strip Technicolor, and seemed rather incongruous to the rest of the film (in black-and-white) at first glance, but hey; it was an important advancement in cinematic technology, so bonus points for that.
I was really torn over how to rate this film, mostly because of one thing I said in the previous paragraph; this film does a lot of things right, but it never felt like it did enough of those things to really be a great picture. To that end, as well as being very much a twin film to Arliss’ previous Best Picture nominee, I’m basically giving this the same rating as Disraeli, since I pretty much ended up on the other side of both films with the same mindset. I was expecting this to be a lesser film of this year’s field, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it exceeded my meager expectations. Kudos for that, at least. I can’t vouch for the pure historical accuracy of what transpires during this film, but I can vouch for its entertainment value, of which there is enough to get quite a few people through the running time, so it gets a recommendation on that alone.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10