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Rowland V. Lee
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William C. de Mille
A savage exposure of upper class English social hypocrisy and anti-Semitism
This powerful drama is based upon a play by John Galsworthy which was staged at St. Martins Theatre in 1922 and ran for a year. It was filmed a second time in 1976 by the BBC for their Play of the Month series, and starred Edward Fox. In this film, the lead role is played by Basil Rathbone. He portrays an extremely wealthy and self-confident English Jew, who will not back down when he comes under anti-Semitic attack by his socially prominent non-Jewish friends. Considering bow many fascists there were in England in the 1930s, the fact that this film was released in the year Hitler came to power is highly significant. It was a stinging rebuke to those who were thrilled at the rise of the Nazis in Germany. But the story itself has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with social hypocrisy and prejudice. The film opens with Rathbone staying as a guest in a country mansion near Newmarket as part of a house party who have been to the races. One of the high-profile social guests is secretly desperate for money and he notices that Rathbone has rather a lot of cash on him because at the races he has just sold one of his race horses to someone on the spur of the moment, and has a fad wad of bills in his wallet as a result. That evening the man sneaks into Rathbone's room and steals his money. Rathbone complains to his host that he has been robbed and the social niceties quickly begin to unravel. It seems that it is all very well for a social guest complain of such a thing if he is an Englishman, but when Rathbone makes such a complaint he is accused of being 'a dirty Jew'. He then says he will not stand for this 'insult to my race'. Rathbone figures out who the thief must be, but when he tries to obtain justice, he is forced to resign from his London gentlemen's club and go into social purdah and disgrace because as a mere Jew he has dared to call into question the honour of a 'real' (i.e. a non-Jewish) gentleman. When I was young and knew various elderly aristocrats of the old school who had been young or middle-aged adults in 1933, I often came across the most outrageous anti-Semitic outbursts, especially from some haughty dowagers who managed to pronounce the word 'Jew' with twisted lips and a sneer, holding their noses high in disdain. Outright anti-Semitism was most definitely common and also socially acceptable in England in 1933, there is no question about it. In fact, it only began to become unfashionable in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the truth about the Holocaust became known and anti-Semites were shamed into keeping silent lest they be thought to be approving of mass-murder (as a handful of 'Holocaust deniers' still do.) In this film, Rathbone is rich enough and proud enough to refuse to give ground, and he goes to court willingly as a defendant in a libel action. I shall not reveal how it all turns out, except to say that things become increasingly fraught and the story becomes more and more dramatic. I saw this film on a DVD obtained from a private collector, and it had been made from a very poor print marred by a continuous time-code all the way through, with the initial scenes barely visible, and the sound track semi-inaudible. I do hope that a decent copy exists somewhere, but I sat through the barrage of technological inadequacies and was glad to see such an impressive film despite all those obstacles. There does not seem to be any commercial copy of this film available anywhere. It needs to be rescued, as it is a milestone in social drama and very good indeed. The two directors were Basil Dean and Thorold Dickinson. Dean is probably best known for having directed the 1934 LORNA DOONE with Margaret Lockwood. Dickinson directed John Gielgud in THE PRIME MINISTER (1941), about Disraeli, and the notoriously successful film GASLIGHT (1940). Assistant Director on the film was the young Carol Reed, in his very first film job. He worked again with Basil Dean the following year on AUTUMN CROCUS (1934). There is no information available to explain what went wrong and why there were two directors on the film. But it all works very well, whoever really finished it and supervised the editing.
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