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Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Twentieth's Rothschild Dignity Sale

Schenck/Zanuck Score Historic Hit with The House Of Rothschild (1934) --- Part One

Was there a sharper producing mind than Darryl Zanuck's? I've read his book of memos compiled by Rudy Behlmer. The man had pictures down to a science well before he left Warner to form Twentieth-Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck, the pair putting The House Of Rothschild into play for year anniversary of Twentieth. It was a bold yet solidly commercial choice, considering Zanuck had brought George Arliss over from WB, a hire the latter called talent raiding ... but wait, the Brothers let GA's contract run w/o provision for its renewal, so big fish Arliss was honestly caught. What success Warners had known with this star got dwarfed by The House Of Rothschild bringing $2.3 million in worldwide rentals (negative cost $529K), a figure to surpass all but biggest then-successes, especially in depth of Depression. For Zanuck/Schenck to achieve this, with a new and independent firm, was movieland miraculous.

They had help, of course. Powerful interests backed Twentieth-Century, among them Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Joe's brother, Nicholas Schenck (all these very silent partners). The Schencks were not unlike historic Rothschilds for looking after each other and guiding an industry via compatible business ventures. Theirs wasn't a large studio, S/Z starting with rental of space at the old Pickford/Fairbanks lot, and sharing that with a busy Samuel Goldwyn. Zanuck was intent on class product that would compete with the best anyone had to offer, a first brace out of Twentieth-Century as sure-footed as what MGM or whoever sent to theatres. In fact, it was quality of the team's first year that opened palace doors (as in Broadway's Astor Theatre) to The House Of Rothschild, where the thing ran like a house afire to precisely an audience that would appreciate it best, sophisticates, a critic community united in praise, and Gotham's cultural mix for which this show was ideally suited. Rothschild's New York success is detailed expertly by Aubrey Solomon in The Fox Film Corporation, 1915-1935: A History and Filmography, one of the best studio histories I've come across.

The House Of Rothschild has taken on recent interest thanks to TCM including it among Jewish-themed features during September. The film had otherwise turned up seldom, though it was syndicated from the 50's, another of those termed epoch-making when new, but forgot since. 1934 was, after all, eighty years ago, and exams of anti-Semitism would hit harder as decades followed. The House Of Rothschild works well as social plea and Arliss vehicle, even if he's less the whole bag than was case at Warners. Humor is not so afoot due to weightier conflicts, though George does work in asides to amuse where possible and without lessen of message. It's nice to see TCM make an event of Arliss and The House Of Rothschild, their primetime broadcast, with Robert Osborne and a studio guest, conferring status upon the rare-seen show to evoke importance it had when long-ago premiered.

Status and importance were bywords when The House Of Rothschild opened for $2.00 tops at the Astor, plus Dignity ... Always Dignity (caps mine ... and Twentieth's). This would be no occasion for "ancient, stereotyped order of ballyhoo" like staff on stilts with sandwich boards: "It is essential that wild exploitation stunts be discouraged, and the picture be exploited with dignity," said pressbook advisory. Distributing United Artists quoted the Rothschild pater familias himself, "You must walk the world with dignity," as guidance for showmen normally given to exuberance. They'd need to pull in horns for this one and let The House Of Rothschild sell itself on prestige and word-of-mouth (plus print) from opinion makers. Toward that, Twentieth scored a TIME magazine cover with Arliss in Rothschild guise, and periodicals were full of the film. "It is a picture which must be so handled that it keeps its skirts clean of any propaganda" was reflection of what worried Twentieth's team from the beginning. Would The House Of Rothschild be so pro-Jewish as to arouse anti-Semitism?

Public acclaim would assuage those fears, but the run-up was touchy. More than one periodical of the day referred to The House Of Rothschild as "Jewish propaganda," while doubters among the trade said it would choke in the heartland. Zanuck and Schenck rolled dice and won, chips placed largely on extended roadshows that would alone recoup Rothschild's cost (initial hard ticket sites included Cleveland, Boston, Utica, and Los Angeles, these set before the Astor premiere). Schenck/Zanuck's strategy again reflected action in the film, the Rothschilds having gambled their fortune on outcome of Napoleonic wars, and emerging richer for the risk. The House Of Rothschild would be the show that made Twentieth-Century Pictures, impressing banks and individual investors who'd trust Schenck/Zanuck judgment as merger with the Fox Film Corporation brought about 20th Century Fox.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson considers other Hollywood businessman heroes:

The film was somewhat careful. Nathan Rothschild's best friend in England is a bluff, salt-of-the-earth, regular guy Duke of Wellington. And Nathan's ingenue daughter is matched to a decent, upright gentile boy. We're assured anti-semitism resides mainly in decaying, sinister aristocracy -- Boris Karloff! -- and not among good folk like the American audience.

I do remember one big laugh at a college showing way back. The film begins with a ghetto being closed at sunset. Later, some king desperately needs help and is obliged to visit the Rothschilds' family home in that same ghetto. With great formality, the king says something about the need to be brief. "They close the gate at sunset," Mrs. Rothschild says drily. It was almost an applause line.

Sometimes I mentally conflate this with "Lloyd's of London," which makes insurance underwriting a patriotic and adventurous enterprise. In that one, a stamp of approval is provided by the hero's childhood pact with the future Lord Nelson, whose glorious victory at sea complements Tyrone Power saving the British economy.

We have fictional yankee financial heroes in "American Madness" (a noble bank president averts a collapse) and "It's a Wonderful Life" (selfless S&L president builds a community). The two-reeler "Sons of Liberty" salutes Haym Salomon, a sort of American Rothschild who scraped together the money for the Revolution and died poor. Were there any features singing the praises of real-life American financiers?

8:36 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I have always wondered if "Sons of Liberty" was originally intended to be a feature film? It's the only one of the WB American-history shorts with a major star (Claude Rains) and director (Michael Curtiz). Also, it has a narrator bridging narrative gaps between scenes, which may be a sign of a truncated feature.

8:37 PM  

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