On March 14, 1934, 20th Century Pictures held the premiere of Alfred Werker’s The House of Rothschild at the Astor Theater in New York. The film, which centered on the European banking family circa 1780 and starred George Arliss, was released as Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was rising to power in Germany. (The Nazis later used a clip from the film in a 1940 anti-Semitic propaganda reel.)
The drama garnered 20th Century’s first Oscar nomination, claiming a best picture nomination at the 7th Academy Awards in 1934. The House of Rothschild also became a hit at the box office. On March 29 of that year, The Hollywood Reporter’s owner, W.R. Wilkerson, noted in a column, “The picture is set for a long run at the Astor … it is safe to estimate that the picture will gather another $400,000 (at least) from the circuits and neighborhood runs in the big city. And how many pictures are grossing $800,000 in America today?” THR’s original review of the movie is below.
Twentieth Century, as its contribution to the costume drama of the year, offers a history of the most famous banking house of all time in Europe and in so doing, by that very strange paradox, loses not one iota of its reputation for filming subjects that are first of all of prime importance in their timeliness. Add to that the fact that this picture has been produced with lavish care, drama, pathos and a delicate humor coupled with a certain gentle homeliness that touches the hearts of any audience and you have a combination that is not only good box office but a picture that is worthy of respectful criticism and one that is entertainment all the way through.
If would have been impossible, of course, to film the entire history of that intriguing and widespread family of Rothschilds (one of whom is still living at the age of 92 or thereabouts in the Germany of today), so they have chosen the figures and circumstances most pertinent and applicable to certain specific conditions as they exist in the world today. Beginning with the death of Mayer Rothschild wherein his main heritage to his five sons is the admonition that they make the world a place in which the Jews may walk in dignity and peace, the picture traces the life of Nathan Rothschild, the head of the house in England, and how through his support of the Allies against Napoleon he eventually brought peace to England and the countries of Europe and gained everlasting glory for the house of Rothschild and did bring about the treaties whereby his people were to be recognized as human beings with human feelings for humanity and which recognition gave them the right to pursue their lives and careers with dignity.
The picture is necessarily almost entirely George Arliss and one is again impressed by the conviction that his artistry can do no wrong. Mr. Arliss lends a warmth and drama to cold facts that are all the difference in the world between a mere impersonation of a historical figure and an actor playing the part of a human being who not only has a definite place in history but who was, first of all, quite human. Loretta Young, looking very beautiful in costume, and Robert Young handle the roles of the young lovers capably and there are standout performances by C. Aubrey Smith as the Duke of Wellington, Boris Karloff as Ledrantz of Prussia and Reginald Owen as Herries. And Helen Westley is magnificent as the dowager Mrs. Rothschild.
Nunnally Johnson has done a fine job with the dialogue, having carefully avoided all the pitfalls of florid speech and stilted language and not allowing a “period” to interfere with his sense of what dialogue between a couple of fellows should sound like. Al Newman’s scoring of the picture has taken full advantage of its dramatic possibilities and skillfully weaves in the exquisite native Jewish melodies.
And to Peverell Marley must go some very special applause for his very beautiful photography. There is one scene in particular, in the beginning of the picture, a shot of the family of Mayer Rothschild waiting on the stairs that is very lovely indeed. Art direction by Richard Day deserves mention, as do the marvelous costumes. And Alfred Werker may well be proud of this day’s work for he has turned out a fine picture and one that will bring plenty of hard-earned money into the box office. — Staff review, originally published on Feb. 23, 1934