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Hollywood’s Most Misunderstood and Forgotten Jewish Movie Returns

In the face of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, film scholars have long debated about why American moviemakers assiduously avoided dealing with Nazism and anti-Semitism in their films. Some point to the fact that Hollywood studio heads wanted to avoid controversial film fare. Others note that these moguls, most of whom were Jewish, feared calling too much attention to themselves as Jews. Still others, point to the economics of film distribution and note that American movie studios had strong financial interests in Germany and did not want to roil anyone.

Some say that the belief that films about the subject would indeed stir up more anti-Semitism kept studios from the subject. And then there was the Motion Picture Association’s Production Code Office whose responsibility it was to self-censor.

Indeed, while many of these reasons may have been true and cause for avoidance, in 1933 a young brash studio head named Darryl F. Zanuck chose to take on Nazism and anti-Semitism at the studio he had just created. Zanuck, who had recently left Warner Brothers, created Twentieth Century Pictures, and working with an idea put forward by actor George Arliss, produced “The House of Rothschild.” A film about a Jewish banking family? At that moment in time? It was a picture that no Jew in Hollywood wanted made, but the stiff-willed and ideologue Zanuck, who was not Jewish, wanted to attack anti-Semitism and against all kinds of resistance he made the film happen. “The House of Rothschild” is to be televised on the Turner Classic Movies channel, as part of a month-long series, “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film.”

“The House of Rothschild” has regrettably largely been largely forgotten. It is also one of the most misunderstood films of the period. With George Arliss masterfully taking on the dual roles of father and son Mayer and Nathan Rothschild, his portrayal of Mayer Amschel is seen by some as anti-Semitic. If one watches early segments of the elder Rothschild fidgeting with coins and figuring out how to avoid paying taxes, you are made to feel uneasy, just as you might when watching some productions of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” A Jewish money-lender is rarely a character of choice for Jews, but the reality was that Jews were indeed money-lenders.

Arliss, who had earlier portrayed Shylock on the London stage, brought that characterization to Mayer and was setting up a story that begins with the subjugation of Jews. As we learn more of the family’s predicament and the excessive restrictions and attacks brought on the residents of Jew Street in the ghetto, we soon empathize with Mayer, his wife and five sons. I saw one would-be scholar present this coin manipulation segment to high school students out of context, making the claim that this was an anti-Semitic motion picture. In 1940, Fritz Hippler would insert this film segment into his anti-Semitic propaganda film, “Der Ewige Jude” (The Eternal Jew), bur Arliss had no such intent. Arliss and Zanuck took great pains to create sympathy for an honest Mayer Amschel and to cast the Jew as a persecuted minority deprived of rights.

Zanuck wanted to bring a realistic portrayal, but he and writer Nunnaly Johnson fully understood the nature of anti-Semitism and to counteract any possible bad feeling by the audience toward the family, he introduced to the story a fictional anti-Semite, Prussian Count Ledrantz, played by Boris Karloff. In watching the film from beginning to end, Zanuck wanted to be clear that restrictions were placed on Jews; they were being discriminated against and attacked. In spite of all of this, many, like the Rothschilds, pursued their dreams and were able to achieve wealth and success. Though the setting for the film was 18th and 19th century Bavaria, the American audience who watched it understood its contemporary anti-Nazi message, some even believing it to be too pro-Semitic.

American Jews had been watching the growing strength of the Nazis as Germany’s economic woes worsened, but Hitler’s defeat in 1932 provided some relief and most dismissed Nazism as a fringe group. It was therefore that much more a shock when Hitler was named Chancellor just a few months later and democratic Germany overnight became a totalitarian state. With comparable economic depression here, there was a heightened sense of concern among those who oversaw Jewish communal life, as Nazi propaganda was making its way to America. This was not lost on the men who ran the movie industry.

The fact that work on “The House of Rothschild,” a film about the famous European Jewish banking family, was begun just months after Hitler’s rise to power and at a time of great anxiety about rising anti-Semitism in America cannot be ignored. Nor should one fail to note that Darryl F. Zanuck, who throughout his career tackled important social issues, would fourteen years later put on the screen “Gentlemen’s Agreement,“ another film about anti-Semitism and recipient of the Oscar for Best Motion Picture; both films are being televised on September 23 as part of the TCM series. There were various forces at play, from a depressed economy, the need for a start-up film company to break out with important and press-worthy films and a developing Jewish communal structure not yet clear as to how it could and should assert itself in difficult times, particularly when it came to movies.

The Depression was a key element in the formation of Darryl F. Zanuck’s new company, Twentieth Century Pictures. Zanuck, who had been head of production at Warner Brothers, broke with his bosses over salary reductions and management style, when some of the major Hollywood studios faced economic uncertainty. The talented Zanuck announced his resignation and within two days was offered financial support from Louis B. Mayer, then head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The idea was to open a new movie studio with Joe Schenck, who was about to leave United Artists and Mayer’s son-in-law William Goetz. Zanuck was an anomaly in Hollywood, as one of the few non-Jewish production heads. Now he would become the only non-Jewish movie chief of a major studio.

With a new company and most of the popular film actors contracted to other studios, the beginnings would prove difficult. A movie’s reception for the public then was largely about which star was to appear in a film and one cannot forget that movie studios at the time literally owned their actors, at least as long as they were under contract. However, a few actors like Constance Bennett, Loretta Young and George Arliss, who had worked closely with Zanuck at Warner Brothers and who felt a special chemistry with him, were able to get out of their contracts. They came ready to work for Zanuck, but the new studio had few scripts ready for them. At this point, Arliss put forward the idea for a film about the Rothschilds.

One can say that George Arliss had a special thing for playing Jewish roles. He had played Benjamin Disraeli, the Jewish-born British statesmen and novelist in a 1921 silent film, “Disraeli,” taking on the role again in the 1929 sound film of the same title on which Zanuck oversaw production at Warner Brothers. In between, Arliss had played “The Merchant of Venice” in the London theater, to great reviews. Arliss immersed himself into every role he played and “Disraeli” won him an Oscar for best actor in a leading role. While preparing for that role, the actor would surely have read Disraeli’s novels, particularly his first, “Coningsby,” about the rich banker Sidonia, who some scholars say reflected an idealized Rothschild. Arliss badly wanted to play Rothschild on film and had for years been longing to make a film about the family. He also saw a chance to tackle two roles in one film and when Zanuck went out on his own, he saw an opportunity.

Within three months of the creation of Twentieth Century Pictures, in April 1933, a script outline written by Maude T. Howell and Sam Mintz, was ready for a Rothschild movie. At that point, Arliss, always enamored by the precision and lavishness of costuming and set, asked for “a concluding scene where Nathan is lionized in England and is receiving a title, the first Lord Rothschild, with his wife present à la Disraeli. “Rothschild, the king of the Jews and the Jew of kings.” The scene would be written into the film and was shot in three color Technicolor, at that time a new and revolutionary process. Arliss loved this stuff and he had enough clout on this picture to make sure it happened.

Over the summer, drawing in large part from an unpublished play by George Hembert Westley, Howell further developed an outline for “The Great Rothschild.” Arliss, sensitive about the increasingly poor situation of Jews in Europe asked that more be written in about the condition at the time of the Jews of Frankfurt, where the early scenes are set. That it is Frankfurt Germany was not lost on either Zanuck or Arliss. Zanuck was comfortable with these suggestions, something with which a Jewish Hollywood producer at the time might have had difficulty. Six days later, Howell submitted her outline and Nunnaly Johnson was assigned the task of writing the screenplay. Johnson was young and largely untested, but Zanuck had confidence that the writer could bring the story to life. The greatest challenge would be to create two central characters, father and the most famous of his five sons, both of whom were to be played by Arliss.

In reviewing the conference notes of Zanuck and Arliss, what becomes clear is George Arliss’ strong sympathy for Jews, something that he writes about extensively in his book, “My Ten Years in the Studios.” As for Zanuck, there was a commitment to utilize the medium of film as a weapon against Hitler and anti-Semitism. Zanuck also needed a powerful film that would bring attention to his new studio, garner some recognition and usher him fully into the film community as a key player. In this production, with an actor of the caliber of a George Arliss and a story that would certainly attract attention, he believed he had something special. At the same time, Zanuck was cognizant that his film needed to be made in a way that would be acceptable to both the viewing public and to the Hays Office of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America.

What must be understood is that Hollywood’s movie-makers had created its own internal monitoring mechanism and a “Production Code” to self-censor and make sure that its motion pictures were acceptable. As movies did not enjoy the same freedom of expression as the Press, films could routinely be censored in any locality for whatever reason. Will Hays, former Postmaster-General for President Harding was hired by the Producers to preside over the office and it was the responsibility of his office to make sure that Hollywood product would be largely acceptable. It was the responsibility of Studio Relations Committee of the MPPDA to make sure that a Hollywood film would offend no one. Zanuck was fully aware of this as he moved forward with his production plans.

By late October 1933, Johnson, working with Howell, produced a first screenplay draft. In a November 1 conference, Arliss had a line inserted that “times are always bad for Jews” and changed a line, “murdered by Gentiles” to “murdered by your people” when directed at the Prussian Count Ledrantz. Over the next weeks, the screenplay was refined and actors and crew were hired. Cognizant of the sensitivity of the subject matter, the Studio sent a copy of the screenplay to Jonah Joseph Cummins, editor of the Los Angeles Jewish newspaper, The B’nai B’rith Messenger. In a November 29 letter to the Studio, Cummins responded that he found no problems. “The consummate skill and finesse with which this work is done will be pleasing to everyone all along the line,” he wrote. With this endorsement, Zanuck sent the screenplay to the Hays office for its review and blessing. James Wingate from the Office wrote back that it “should present an interesting picture, free from Code and censorship difficulties.” Just to be sure, Wingate added that it might also be a good idea to send a copy of the screenplay to “some representative of the German Government.” Zanuck immediately responded that he believed that to be a bad idea.

With the okay from the MPPDA, production on the film began. Then, two weeks later, on December 21, Zanuck surprisingly received a letter from Will Hays, emphasizing “it is important that nothing be done now that might possibly feed the unreasoning prejudice against the Jews which is in some places… The danger is, of course, that the ordinary treatment of the theme might emphasize in its effect a basic element of anti-Jewish propaganda; that an audience may not distinguish between the right use of power, as the Rothschilds did use it, as against a bad use of power which they might have exerted.” The letter completely took Zanuck by surprise. Why was Hays raising this flag of caution two weeks after his office had given Twentieth Century Pictures the green light? At this late date, Hays was clearly getting pressure from elements within the Los Angeles Jewish community.

In 1933, the Anti-Defamation League commission of B’nai B’rith moved offices to Chicago. Richard E. Gutstadt was recruited to be ADL’s director of special activities and he asked Leon L. Lewis, who had been ADL’s first national director to act as its representative in Los Angeles. Under Gutstadt’s leadership, the commission began to take a more active role in defending against perceived anti-Semitism. As Sigmund Livingston, ADL’s first chairman, saw it: “When the alarm is sent, we rush to stamp out the flames and embers— so that no greater injury will result and no large conflagration develop. After we perform our labor, we return and await the next alarm.” ADL became increasingly concerned about anti-Semitic propaganda that might be coming out of Nazi Germany and Leon Lewis went to work. In addition, he saw ADL’s role as guardian of what was good or bad for Jews in cinema. Upon learning of Zanuck’s planned production, the commission exerted a great deal of pressure on Louis B. Mayer, whose company was financing Twentieth Century Pictures; Mayer paid little attention. Lewis then went to Harry Warner at Warner Brothers, who shared with him that “at this particular time the implications of international manipulation of finance and of a political character may make this one of the most dangerous presentations which could be released.” Leon Lewis then advised Mayer that Warner was even prepared to pay whatever is required to arrange for the film’s destruction. Over the next several weeks, efforts are made by Lewis to enlist prominent Jewish leaders to stop production and in a telegram to Lewis, Gutstadt wrote, “Rothschild film believed sufficiently damaging to justify every effort to prevent or decidedly alter…” Lewis was then asked to try to persuade Joseph Schenck, Zanuck’s Jewish partner, that the film “may create a strong undercurrent of resentment among the Jewish public,” and that it was bad for Jews. Schenck was a bit shaken, but he stood by his partner.

ADL saw itself as defender of the Jewish people. Zanuck, who was not one to turn the other cheek, responded to Lewis in a letter. “To say that the Rothschilds were not international bankers in the Napoleonic period is to say that Disraeli was not a statesman… We make pictures for the broad general public rather than the minority and I will guarantee you that if there is such a thing as a ‘rising hatred of the Jews in America,’ our film version of ‘Rothschild’ will do more to stop it than anything, from the standpoint of entertainment.” As a last resort, Lewis enlisted the esteemed Rabbi Edgar Magnin, considered the most powerful and influential rabbi in Los Angeles at that time, to join the attack. Zanuck, responding to Magnin, told him that if anything, several individuals had cautioned him that the film “might be too pro-Semitic and that perhaps he, Zanuck, had painted the lily too white.” In fact, a Variety article in mid-December had intimated that the film was indeed “too Semitic.” Magnin then turned to Will Hays to bring a halt to production, prompting Hays’ December 21 letter to Zanuck. Right after Christmas, Zanuck responded to Hays, saying, “Our only interest is to make an entertaining box-office picture that will please millions of theatre-goers. We are not interested in boosting or knocking anyone.” That seemed to satisfy Hays and when the endorsement of The B’nai B’rith Messenger became known to Lewis and Gutstadt, it became clear that production could not be halted.

With the film’s release on March 14, reviews of the film began to come in from the press, almost all of them glowing. The Daily News wrote that “George Arliss has given many excellent performances on the stage and screen, but he has never, in my opinion, quite equaled his playing of the dual roles of the elder and younger Rothschild.” “Timely, brilliant and filmed with magnificent dignity,” wrote the critic for the Wall Street Journal. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times stated, “Mr. Arliss outshines any performance he has contributed to the screen.” Variety has the film as “one of those occasional 100% smashes which Hollywood achieves. The Daily Mirror called it “significant and strong…a magnificent picture,” and The New York Sun wrote that the film “deserves an audience for the general excellence of its production.” William Boehnel wrote in The New York World-Telegram that “in the light of similar persecutions in Germany today, the film was a timely and fiery document.” Time Magazine noted that the film’s release was “shrewdly timed to touch obliquely on current Jew-baitings in Germany.” The Herald-Tribune called it a persuasive piece of anti-Nazi argument, done handsomely in the costumes of an earlier day.” Regina Crewe in the New York American wrote that “ ‘The House of Rothschild’ was not only motion picture entertainment, but significant drama carrying a note of warning for those with ears to hear.” “A tremendous thrust against lawless prejudice, against mob and official intolerance,” wrote Benjamin De Casseres in Motion Picture-Herald and Kate Cameron noted in the NY Daily News, “the story is the work of Nunnaly Johnson, who presents the Jewish side of the anti-Semitic outburst in present day Germany by indirection.

Not a single reference is made to the present trouble in Germany, but the analogy is apparent in the Frankfort episodes of the early Nineteenth Century.” While praising the film, the L.A. Times noted that “while the story is open to criticism because of overemphasis of Jewish persecution in Prussia and to a lesser degree in England, this exaggeration is excusable showmanship for it widens the appeal of the picture and makes capital of present conditions.” Lastly, the same Joseph Jonah Cummins of Bnai Brith Messenger, who had endorsed the film in December, wrote in his review “the very production of the film at this time found subconscious opposition within me. Yet, the subtle portrayal of the Napoleonic era, and the part which this Jewish family played in this great drama of history, left me with nothing but praise for everyone who had a hand in its making.” Probably most important, “The House of Rothschild” got the endorsement of an important Jewish organization- the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Anti-Defamation League still tried to limit exhibition of the film, but it became clear that its efforts were to no avail. Finally, after learning that National Council had endorsed the picture, Leon Lewis telegrammed Gutstadt, and advised him to stop. “Previous efforts to stop film unavailing. Present effort to stop distribution would only result in division and internal difficulties nullifying efforts to create unity of action.” The following day, Gutstadt telegrammed back, “Still believe much danger. Perhaps militancy would add greatly to our difficulties.” Gutstadt was committed to what he saw as an important piece of ADL’s mission, but he was also aware of the broader implications. “We must not be unmindful,” he wrote to Lewis, “of the grave danger which is involved in any over-enthusiastic pressure which may result in the defeat of what we have in mind…For us to appear as engaged in an effort to pare down the Bill of Rights and to circumscribe in any apparent manner the freedom of the press, is going to result in more harm than good. The liberals are with us now. We can’t afford to forfeit their support.”

Darryl F. Zanuck had now made the most successful film of his career to date as a studio head. “The House of Rothschild” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Motion Picture, though it would not win. Zanuck believed in creating important social message motion pictures and throughout his career he would continue to do so. He saw anti-Semitism as a scourge on America and used his studio to fight it, first with “The House of Rothschild” and later with other films like “Gentleman’s Agreement.” His experience with the established Jewish community would prepare him well for his next battle with the organized Jewish community who tried to block production of “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1947. As an American, he always was ready to fight for what he felt was right. As a gentile, he was not inhibited by the same concerns and fears as his fellow Jewish studio heads. As hoped, “The House of Rothschilds” put him on the same playing field as his fellow moguls. Darryl F. Zanuck had finally arrived. “The House of Rothschild,” a film that was unafraid and unabashed in combating prejudice and in fighting Nazism, was his ticket to the table. That it was a brash and pioneering effort to fight the growing Nazi menace should be clear to all.

*“The House of Rothschild” will be shown on Turner Classic Movies at 8:00 PM EST on September 23:**

Eric A. Goldman teaches at Yeshiva University and is co-host of the Turner Classic Movies series this month, “The Projected Image: The Jewish Experience on Film.”


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