The News from Waterloo

The Hollywood movie

The House of Rothschild (1934)

You can watch it here.

Made by 20th Century Pictures and produced, with a starry cast, by Darryl F Zanuck (42nd Street, How Green Was My Valley, All About Eve), this was popular in its day and received an Oscar nomination. Today it is embarrassing to watch, a crude mishmash of Jewish stereotypes and leaden anti-racism messages, all wrapped in a daft, schmaltzy story barely related to historical fact.

The climax (spoiler alert) is Waterloo. Having ruthlessly defeated official prejudice to win himself a slice of a big war loan, Nathan then finds himself having to save the British government and the Stock Exchange from ruin as rumours circulate of an allied defeat. At the last moment he receives word of victory (thanks to a pigeon post message from the battlefield) and not only is his fortune re-made, but the country is rescued.

The cast includes George Arliss, a big star who had only recently won a best actor Oscar; Boris Karloff, already famous for his monster in Frankenstein; Loretta Young, who would go on to a long career in film and television; and Robert Young, later television’s Marcus Welby M.D. There is an amusing cameo part for C. Aubrey Smith, often Hollywood’s quintessential crusty English gent, as a Duke of Wellington who speaks with a broad Irish accent.

It’s hard to know what they were thinking when they made it. The message at the end, when Nathan is elevated to the nobility by the Prince Regent ('England is deeply grateful to her adopted son’), seems to be that he is a heroic patriot as well as a modest and likeable man. Racial prejudice is pointedly exposed as cruel and wrong. Earlier scenes, however, have a different feel, and the opening passages (in which Arliss plays Nathan’s father, Amschel) are pretty well cardboard cut-out stuff in the tradition of Shylock and Fagin.

The history is bunk. The plot doesn’t even follow any of the myths prevalent at the time, though in one sense the writers accidentally strayed close to a truth no one then knew. That Nathan Rothschild was never ennobled in Britain was an easily confirmed fact in 1934 and it remains a fact today, so the film’s closing scene is nonsense. But in recent years it emerged that he was probably offered a knighthood in 1815, and turned it down.

A sample line: 'Buy till we break... We've picked our horse and we'll back it till it drops . . . I’m giving all I've got to give for the peace of Europe.'