Saturday, July 01, 2006


One reason to love the current era of classic movies on cable: the chance to see the work of actors who were well known and well liked in their era but whose popularity hasn't extended to the present day. This week, I'm going to devote some blog posts to the films of George Arliss, a British stage actor who had a short but successful film career in the 1930's. His main claim to fame was playing historical figures--he won one of the first Best Actor Oscars back in 1930 for DISRAELI, a movie I haven't been able to see yet. Arliss' films are unlikely to wind up released in DVD boxed sets, like the movies of Bogart or Astaire or Bette Davis, but they do show up occasionally on Turner Classic and Fox Movie Channel. Leonard Maltin says that Arliss is a fine actor "in sore need of rediscovery," and I agree. In the past, I've reviewed THE MILLIONAIRE and THE GREEN GODDESS, both good movies, and this week, I'll review a few more I've been lucky enough to see.

In this historical family story, Arliss plays the dual role of Mayer Rothschild, founder in the 1790's of the famous banking house, and Nathan, his son. Though much of the narrative is concerned with the pervasive anti-Semitism of the time and place, the movie also traffics in some unfortunate Jewish stereotypes which may undercut that theme with today's viewers. In the short, atmospheric opening section of the film, we see Meyer, a coin dealer and money lender living in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt, hiding caches of money from the tax collector. He tells his children that, because money lending is one of the only occupations open to Jews, money is the only defense against the combative Gentile society (the Jews are forced to live on one street and are locked in their homes at night). He starts his sons in banking and tells them to spread out to various cities to stop the loss of money transfers through war and banditry. Thirty years later, the story is picked up with Arliss as Nathan, the eldest son, who is established in London and makes important loans to the British and their allies in their wars against Napoleon. After Wellington (C. Aubrey Smith) defeats Napoleon, Arliss suggests loaning money to France to rebuild. His suggestion is approved, but his bid for making the loan is rejected due to the anti-Semitic Count Ledrantz (Boris Karloff, miles away from his Frankenstein monster and quite good as the outwardly civilized villain). Arliss gets his revenge by driving down the price of the bonds, and he finally gets the bid, but Karloff gets his own revenge by inciting a series of pogroms in Prussia. When Napoleon escapes from exile, the advantage goes back to Arliss when the allies need his money again. Despite an offer from Napoleon asking for money in exchange for freedom for the Jews, Arliss goes with the allies and the film ends with the defeats of both Napoleon and Karloff. Despite the historical sweep of the narrative, the film is fairly stagy with lots of talky scenes (we see no war action and never meet Napoleon), though thanks to good acting and pacing, it rarely feels static. There is a more or less unnecessary romantic subplot with Arliss' daughter, Loretta Young, in love with a Gentile soldier (Robert Young). The two Youngs are bland and unwelcome as they take screen time away from Karloff and the wonderful Arliss. Also notable are Helen Westley (as Meyer's wife), Reginald Owen, and Arthur Byron. Arliss' real-life wife Florence plays Nathan's wife, though she doesn't have much to do. The film plays fast and loose with history, but that's a given with Hollywood. Quite enjoyable, and Arliss commands the screen as usual. [FMC]

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