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Thursday, October 02, 2014

Twentieth-Century Still In The Banking Business

Greenbriar Enters The House Of Rothschild --- Part Two

Opening night hyperbole is window to emotion this film aroused: I believe that " The House Of Rothschild" will still be showing when any other picture you can name will be but a memory. This was Motion Picture Herald reportage from the Astor, which gave further insight re crowd response: The mood of the audience was tense and receptive, punctuated at certain high-spots by explosions of spontaneous applause. Tickets had sold out well in advance of opening night; you couldn't get in sooner than three weeks ahead without resort to scalpers. A capacity 1,612 seats were filled at every show, morning to last perf. Entrants beyond available seating were permitted to stand for the 88 minute feature. B.O. insurance for Rothschild was a love story to blow dust off 19th century setting, this the preserve of Loretta Young and Robert Young. Despite boldness of Rothschild's theme, the Arliss formula of yore would not be altogether expunged, GA at sea without a youthful pair to encourage or oppose (in this case, daughter Loretta in Bob's forbidden embrace). Added vinegar was Boris Karloff as a Frankenstein's monster of anti-Semitism, Rothschild lighting up when he and Arliss tilt.

BK fans born of a monster boom don't for a most part bother with The House Of Rothschild, due to scarcity plus fact it's not their kind of Karloff movie, but infinitely more people saw this in 1934 than, say, The Black Cat, which came out the same year. I'll venture, in fact, that there wasn't a Karloff performance in whole of the 30's that got a larger audience than The House Of Rothschild. He'd have known that at the time, and rightly seen this as ticket out of typecasting, which Rothschild might have been, had further such work come Karloff's way. Unfortunately, but for sporadic instance (some Mr. Wongs, a brace of character leads in Warner B's), it was back to bogeymen for balance of the decade. Some aver Karloff to have overacted in The House Of Rothschild; I call his a flex of muscle Rothschild needed, a threat to loom more explicit than whether or not banker Arliss will float his crucial loan.

Lights --- Camera --- Three-Color Technicolor!

Rothschild roadshow as event was further settled by inclusion of a final-reel Technicolor sequence, this not limited spectrum of the old and oft-decried two-color process, but fresh application of all primary hues, plus gradations between. Till 1934 a novelty of Disney cartoons, three-strip Technicolor would now garland live actors before big studio cameras, not yet for the full length of a feature, but in show-off highlights to take breath from patrons who'd never had color so good (others among 1934 instance: The Cat and The Fiddle and Kid Millions). Technicolor chief Herbert Kalmus would recall The House Of Rothschild as "the first test of the three-component process on a very large set" (his article, Technicolor Adventures In Cinemaland, for the December 1938 Journal Of The Society Of Motion Picture Engineers). Rothschild's concluding scene did indeed take place on an enormous set, made more so by what looks to be a first-ever three-color glass shot, or hanging miniature, or matte (anyone know which?), showing expanse above the players and an outsized chandelier. An on-set photo above shows limit of the actual set's height, and a bank of intense lighting that would have been concealed by the special effect.

Technicolor rightly saw Rothschild as opportunity to sell a revitalized process to an industry and its public. Everyone is vibrant dressed, true blue an especial highlight for being attainable at last on film. Colors till then ruddy were electric via the new process, its effect so startling as to make a few critics regret Rothschild drama turning bright-lit pageant at the finale ("a veritable riot of color," said publicity). That "lit" part was Technicolor's truest challenge. It took seeming equivalent of six suns to properly illuminate that "large set" Kalmus mentioned; in fact, they'd borrow arc lamps from all over town to brighten 16,000 square feet for Rothschild's final act "Reception Hall," this according to an article by Walter Strohm for the October 1934 issue of International Photographer. Arc lamps could be noisy, a problem for sound recording on the set. Fifty-five foot candles of light had been norm for black-and-white photography. The House Of Rothschild would need two-hundred and ten (plus seventy-five technicians to man the equipment). Heat on the set, made more so by heavy costuming actors wore, became excruciating when the wave of arcs poured over them. All of principal players appeared in the color section, save Boris Karloff, whose villainous character had by then been routed. TCM's broadcast of The House Of Rothschild thankfully included the Technicolor, not necessarily a given, as earlier play on the Fox Movie Channel had been B/W and majorly disappointing to fans.

Funny thing about theatres back then --- they'd brag about how expensive tickets were, at least where the attraction was special enough. It conferred status to pay top dollar for seeing a movie early in its run, and better still to have been there for a roadshow performance. Hard-ticket wasn't for pikers and cheapskates. Patrons on so rich an outing would often as not dress formal for the event, or at the least don jacket and tie. One could assert his/her socio-economic position just by showing up for first night at, for instance, Cleveland's Ohio Theatre (left), where The House Of Rothschild commanded $1.65 for best seats. You could feed the family for days with that in 1934. The Ohio's was a "Midwest Premiere," and again the "dignity" angle was stressed. Cleveland hoi-polloi would wait for The House Of Rothschild to re-load for sub-run, several months later, at the popular-priced Loew's State (above), where coins rather than paper money bought ways in, with sugar added by Mickey Mouse and an Our Gang short. Doors opened at 10:45 and ground continuous from there. By this point, The House Of Rothschild had got its cost back and gone into profit.

Down-the-line showmen in less cultivated markets looked to carny ways for selling The House Of Rothschild, but where were hooks? UA suggested a few, like Bill Saxton in Baltimore arranging for carrier pigeons to fly invites from his theatre to the local mayor, and Maryland's governor --- Motion Picture Herald called this a first ever use of "the pigeon gag." There was serialization in Jewish dailies, comp admission to rabbis who'd spread word, and appeal to real estate and stock brokers that stopped by to advise viewers on how they could make killings in the market. From bottom of a Depression barrel, The House Of Rothschild was emerging as celebration of capitalism and hope for renewed prosperity. If the Rothschilds could stage a financial coup, why not the rest of us? Lester Pollack at the Rochester Loew's spoofed Rothschild's roadshow rep by printing up his own "hard tickets," except these touted "no advance" in price at his ticket window.

Top-Of-Page Splash In the L.A. Times --- Note Artist Depiction
Of The Technicolor Stage 

The House Of Rothschild would live on by reputation, the title evoked whenever Fox had a new show it thought comparable (even Jesse James was sold as a Rothschild successor). Some picture people regarded it an all-time #1, J. Arthur Rank years later calling Rothschild "not empty entertainment, but entertaining as well as having substance." A 6/43 booking was mentioned by Variety for being unexpected --- who'd have figured The House Of Rothschild to run at theatres in Fascist Italy, and during height of the war? Like many of features historical-themed, Rothschild would renew life in schools and play through the 50's as teaching tool, a "classroom version" at 33 minute running time prepared by the "National Council For The Social Studies" ("This classroom version of the feature photoplay highlights the importance of finance in warfare and dramatically visualizes the injustice of discrimination against minorities"). The House Of Rothschild would go also to 50's TV syndication as part of NTA's "Rocket" package, but has been overlooked since for home video. Will it eventually turn up as a Fox On-Demand DVD --- and with the color sequence? A last query: Twentieth-Century did a deluxe general release trailer for The House Of Rothschild which included footage from the Astor premiere --- anyone seen it or know present day whereabouts?

ALSO NOTE: Lou Luminick has an excellent New York Post column HERE that supplies fascinating background re TCM's showing of The House Of Rothschild, along with further info on present day attitudes regarding the film. Terrific stuff!


Blogger Kevin K. said...

This was the first time my wife saw the movie, and she loved it. What's impressive is how a movie concerning 19th-century European history, economics, and religious intolerance could be so entertaining -- and popular. And finally, the Technicolor finale! I never thought I'd live to see it.

Plus, nobody looks as dignified with hands in pockets as George Arliss. He can do no wrong.

10:28 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

Saw this for the first time since I was a kid (when I mostly watched it for Karloff) and enjoyed it immensely, due mostly I think to a great cast expertly delivering wonderful dialogue. But I thought the garish Technicolor ending nearly destroyed the mood (although I'm sure it didn't hurt the box-office).

8:01 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

My father once told me about a scene in a movie about the Rothschilds. A banker and his daughter walk by a beggar, the daughter gives him some money and the banker just walks by. The daughter asks him how he could be so heartless when he's so wealthy, and he replies, "You must remember you had the advantage of having a rich father." Is this the movie? I don't suppose there could be that many movies about the Rothschilds.

1:56 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

There's a scene similar to that, with Arliss speaking a line not unlike the one you quote, but not to his daughter, and not with reference to a beggar (I think it's actually a coachman).

2:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some thoughts on George Arliss and "The House Of Rothschild":

Mr. George Arliss had a peculiar talent for playing such men as Benjamin D'Israeli, Alexander Hamilton, and Cardinal Richelieu, who were possessed of an absolute conviction that the continued good order of the universe depended upon their personal ambitions being fulfilled. A Nathan Rothschild was particularly well suited for him. Prof. Carroll Quigley's "Tragedy and Hope," which presents "A History of the World in Our Time," which is to say, the financial system which dominates it, deals with the Rothschild family almost in passing and is complimentary in what it has to say about them, as to their culture and civilization. One also has the impression, however, that their great success and the distrust they engendered were sides of the same coin: that they had great loyalty to the family and scarcely any for the society they lived within. That this might be the case is suggested by the pivotal scene in this film concerning the bond sale, in which Nathan Rothschild's generous offer to purchase is turned aside by the evil Count Ledrantz on a "technicality," that Rothschild is a Jew. Rothschild has his vengeance, breaking Ledrantz and his consortium with the device of offering other bonds for much less than the bonds purchased by Ledrantz and his friends, thus preventing them from realizing a return on their investment. This raises the question, of course, as to why Rothschild would not have been similarly vulnerable, since he offered to pay even more for the bonds in question. The answer, of course, is that Rothschild would not have had an enemy as savvy and ruthless as he was himself to his own enemies.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Saw a vhs recorded from the BBC probably sometime in the 80s. ... can't for the life of me recall if the colour sequence appeared in their print....

4:19 AM  

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